LONDON (Reuters) - Hailed as the Women's Games, the London Olympics have set new records for female participation but athletes fear that once the event comes to an end so will the interest in ladies sport yet again.
London is the first Olympics where women are competing in all 26 sports with female boxers making their debuts and the first Games where every country has female athletes with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei now on board.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge proudly boasted that the progress at London was a major boost for gender equality, with equality and neutrality two of the most important Games values.
But women athletes, while enjoying equal billing at London, have highlighted the struggles they face outside the Olympics in generating interest in their sports from audiences and sponsors and are concerned this will happen against after the Games.
British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead used the platform provided by her silver-medal display in the road race to highlight the "overwhelming sexism" that persists in sport in salary and in media coverage.
"Sexism is a big issue in women sport - salary, media coverage, general things you have to cope with in your career. If you focus too much on that you get disheartened," she said.
"At the moment there's not much I can do to change it but after my career I hope to."
Lack of funding and lack of media coverage for women's sports are blamed for failing to produce strong role models and for low participation rates of young girls in sport.
Figures in a British study show just half of one percent of all commercial sports sponsorship goes to women's sports while 61 percent is injected into the male equivalent. The rest goes to sports where both genders compete.
The same study also found that only five percent of media coverage goes to women's sports and 43 percent of teenage girls do not think they have enough role models.
Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) that commissioned the study, said interest in female sports had grown but this had not had an impact on sponsorship funding.
"There are women's events that have comparable if not larger audiences than some men's events but the sponsorship does not reflect this," said Tibballs whose charity foundation has a mission to boost female involvement in sport.
"Women's sport is seriously undercapitalised when you look at the number of fans."
The Olympics are seen as an opportunity every four years to promote women's sport with the audience at the Games evenly divided between men and women whereas males usually dominate sporting viewer numbers.
The number of women at the Olympics is also a draw with the participation of female athletes rising significantly in the past 20 years and huge interest in competitors like 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte who has won the 100 metres breaststroke gold in London.
An estimated 45 percent of the 10,500 athletes in London will be women, up from 42 percent at Beijing four years ago and 25 percent at Barcelona 1992 when there were 34 teams without females.
In 2004, Rogge said 50-50 was the goal.
In London there are more women than men on both the United States and Canadian teams and one competitor, Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, competed while eight months pregnant.
But females are still competing in 30 fewer events than men and only 132 gold medals are available for women compared to 162 for males.
Top female canoeist Samantha Rippington is due at Britain's High Court this week to challenge the absence of her sport from the Olympics despite five men's events.
A women's kayak event is making its debut this year but canoeing events are still male-only.
The inclusion of 36 women among the 286 boxers at London was welcomed with International Boxing Association (AIBA) president Wu Ching-kuo saying he hoped more women would fight in Rio 2016.
"I think women in sport is one of the most important issues in the Olympic movement," he said. "It needs a lot of promotion.
"We need to encourage national federations, national Olympic committees, that they must consider to include more women in the decision-making bodies of the organisations."
LEAD FROM TOP
Women campaigners have called on the IOC to meet a target it set in 1996 for females to hold 20 percent of the positions in ruling bodies which includes the 204 National Olympic Committees and 35 sports federations.
Annie Sugier, spokewoman for the International League of Women's Rights who has campaigned for Olympic equality for 20 years, said only about 10 percent of these positions were held by women and it was critical to lead from the top.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organisers LOCOG, came under fire in a letter in the Guardian newspaper for using the words "mankind" and "countrymen" at the opening ceremony while London Mayor Boris Johnson was criticised for describing bikini-clad female beach-volleyball players as "glistening like wet otters".
"Nothing will change without a real commitment from the IOC," Sugier told Reuters. "The Olympics is the one place where there is one law for all and the time to enforce equality."
The inclusion of women athletes in the Saudi Arabian team in London was welcomed but with reservations.
The two women competing for Saudi Arabia - in judo and running - live and train outside the conservative Islamic kingdom where girls are banned from sports in state schools and powerful clerics castigate females for exercising.
"Sending these two women in hijabs and with male guardians is just not sufficient," said Sugier. "To really make a difference and empower women in sport the IOC needs to make them really comply with the equality rule of the Olympics."
But even in wealthy countries women athletes can find themselves treated differently.
Female Japanese footballers and the Australian women's basketball team had to travel to London in economy seats while the male squads flew in business class.
The Australian delegation defended the decision on height grounds but a Reuters analysis found the average height of the male team was two metres (6-foot-7) while the women's squad was 1.84 metres (6-foot) - and seven of the 12 women were taller than the shortest male player.
With some ground gained in London, however, campaigners and athletes said it was important to build on this after the Games to ensure future Olympics moved toward true gender equality.
Tibballs said the WSFF had launched a social media campaign with the Twitter hashtag #gogirl! to raise issues around the lack of investment and media profile given to women's sport in Britain and to promote female sports after the Olympics.
"(This) is a celebration not just of our elite athletes but of the idea of creating a lasting legacy of active, healthy and sporty women," she said. (Editing by Tony Jimenez)
Updated Date: Aug 01, 2012 07:00 AM