Olympics: IOC's gender-parity goal marks one giant leap for humankind

PV Sindhu in action in Rio 2016. Indian women will be participating in more sports than ever in Tokyo. David Ramos/Getty Images

Tokyo has already become the Games of the great leap. Of a daring, a foolhardiness even, many believe, but also of an idea whose time mercifully has been hustled into arriving. We could consider these the Emergency Games, because if you can pull off an Olympics during a global health emergency, it creates a template for the mega event that can be held at any time. The over-stretched medical community can look at Tokyo as the Virology Games - a global gathering of the variant strains within a contained radius.

It is in sport though, that Tokyo will take a stride that the rest of humanity struggles to accept.

Let's think of Tokyo as an Olympics about women. Not just about those female stars who will be generating Olympic headlines - like gymnast Simone Biles, athlete Shelley-Ann Fraser Price, swimmer Katie Ledecky, wrestler Risako Kawai, tennis player Naomi Osaka. Tokyo is about all of those who hold up half the sky.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that Tokyo is set to become the most gender-balanced Olympics ever, with nearly 49%(48.8) women athletes, up from Rio's 46 (45.22%.) In Paris 2024, we are promised 50-50. In Sydney 2000, women athletes comprised 38.2% (4068 of 10647) of the total number of competitors. Maintaining the status quo would not have affected the Games or its revenues or status in any way. It would have been accepted, internalised, rationalised. Yet, the Olympics have chosen to push ahead.

For all the Olympic movement's flaws - gigantism, financial skulduggery - this open pursuit of gender-equity requires a standing ovation worldwide. Particularly when you consider how tough it is for women to even demand, never mind get close to, gender parity or even a larger share of the pie across many other fields. Like in big-money professional sport or corporate boardrooms or even governments. To make a gender balance an Olympic mission and to follow through with an unstoppable energy is both impressive and admirable.

Tokyo's post-COVID-19 percentage parity numbers will only be available to us later but there can be no doubting the IOC's intention or its achievement. In Tokyo, for the first time in the Games' 125-year history, every participating nation will have at least one male and one female athlete. During the opening ceremony, teams have been encouraged to have one man and one woman athlete carry their national flag together.

These are not merely token gestures.

They have been preceded by a real takedown of many citadels of male privilege. Particularly when we examine the Games' most macho disciplines - combat sports. Since their Olympic debut, both judo (1992) and taekwondo (2000) have always featured an equal number of weight categories (and so medals on offer) for men and women. Seven in judo, four in taekwondo, and Tokyo for the first time will feature a mixed team event in judo.

In boxing, the men have dropped four weight categories from 12 to 8, while the number of categories for women's boxing, introduced in the 2012 London Olympics, has gone from three to five weight categories in Tokyo. By Paris 2024, men and women are expected to be gender balanced in boxing.

The IOC's toughest grapple has involved persuading one of its oldest sports - wrestling, contested even at the ancient Olympics - to come close to parity. Women only compete in freestyle (not Greco-Roman wrestling which is entirely dependent on upper body strength) and made their debut in 2004. Between 1971 and 1996, men had competed across 20 freestyle weight categories. When wrestling was almost dropped from the Olympic roster in 2013, the male categories were cut down to 12 and today, women's freestyle wrestling is contested across six weights.

For India, too, the number of women athletes competing at the Olympics has risen dramatically in this millennium. Until 2000 (other than Moscow, where women's hockey made its Olympic debut) Indian women had only featured in single digits. In Tokyo, they form nearly half (52) the total contingent of 120.

This time, Indian women will make their pioneering debuts in fencing and sailing. Following in gymnast Dipa Karmakar's footsteps from Rio is Pranati Nayak. Indian women will be competing in more events -- 16 -- than ever before at an Olympic Games. The men compete in 14. No women are to be found in equestrian and rowing and no men in fencing, judo, gymnastics or weightlifting. This out of a country where men occupy all positions of sporting power across federations. No matter how they try to control it, the power of the female athlete, it appears, cannot be contained.

Despite everything, it is not that all sport has suddenly begun to treat its male and female athletes even-handedly. European handball imposing fines of 150 Euros each on the Norwegian women's team for refusing bikini bottoms is a case in point. These are the first Olympics since the horrific Larry Nassar revelations out of US gymnastics. Patriarchy's roots are deep and wide, even across sporting cultures envied around the world. Australian swimmer Madeline Groves withdrew from the Olympic trials citing "misogynistic perverts" in the sport.

But the IOC's push for gender parity has produced a ripple effect down the line, even in countries where traditionally the access of sport for women is restricted and conventionally not approved. Any absence of women athletes or a sufficiently full competition calendar for the women will get noticed at the top of the tree.

Tokyo will send out another very important message about gender parity. Two of the Olympics' major disciplines - swimming of the first week and athletics of the second will hold their first-ever Olympics mixed team relays. The world championships of both sports have featured mixed relays in the past - swimming starting in 2014 and athletics in 2017. But to see them at an Olympic Games is to send a message of unimagined possibility to millions of girls and boys around the world. Of a sharing of the platform, of a gender-neutral camaraderie of athletes, of a mingling of competitive spirits.

There will be many louder, flashier stories around Tokyo, but few will be as impactful as these. Atlas, finally, will have some company.

Sharda Ugra will be part of ESPN.in's Olympics coverage team through the Tokyo Games.