An Analysis of Women’s Participation Rates at the Paralympic Games

Drawing upon data from the last six summer Paralympic Games (1988 – 2008) it would appear that women’s participation at the summer Paralympic Games is increasing worldwide having risen from 22.1% of all athletes in Seoul (710 women, 2503 men) to 34.6% in Beijing (1367 women, 2584 men).  The top section of Table 1 (below) shows the top five sports that women competed in at the Beijing Paralympic Games when compared to male participation in the same sport. Of the twenty sports competed in inBeijingwomen only outnumbered men in one – equestrianism. Of the remaining four sports in the top five, two of them are team sports. This may, therefore, not be a true reflection of women’s participation in these sports relative to men as the number of teams and the number of players per team is fixed by the organisers. The other two sports in the top five are rowing and swimming. Swimming is often used as a rehabilitative tool for people with disabilities and doesn’t require much in the way of specialist equipment, which might explain why the number of women relative to men is so much higher than for other individual sports. Rowing, which was making its debut at the Paralympic Games inBeijing, had a limited number of events and competitors and as such this may have led to an artificial reflection of the number of women with disabilities taking part in rowing. All of the five sports with the lowest percentage of women relative to men, with the exception of sailing, are individual sports and/ or require both specialist equipment and training, which are often monopolised by male athletes.

Table 1. Top and bottom five sports for female participation inBeijingby gender and sport and as a percentage of all women participating at the Games

Percentage of women by gender and sport















Sitting Volleyball




Wheelchair Basketball


Wheelchair Fencing







Percentage of all participating women by sport
            Highest          Lowest
Sport % Sport %
Athletics 24.3 Wheelchair


Swimming 16.4 Sailing 1.0


8.8 Wheelchair


Table Tennis 7.0 Boccia 1.9
Sitting Volleyball  6.2 Wheelchair



The bottom section of table 1 shows the top five sports that women competed in relative to the total number of female participants at the Beijing Paralympic Games. This clearly shows that athletics and swimming are by far the two most popular sports for women. However, this is not particularly surprising as they are also the two biggest sports for men and women at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The high percentage of women participating in these two sports at the Paralympics is likely a reflection of the popularity, availability and accessibility of these two sports world-wide. Of the five sports with the lowest percentage of women taking part relative to other sports four of them are highly technical sports necessitating expensive equipment and coaching, which put them beyond the reach of many disabled athletes means. This is especially true for women, who suffer from multiple barriers of various kinds when trying to access sporting opportunities. The fifth sport, boccia, is for athletes with severe disabilities, now called athletes with high support needs. When combining a severe disability with all of the issues outlined in my last post on women with disabilities in sport it is hardly surprising that so few women with high support needs compete at the Paralympic Games.

National Teams without women

Overall, the number of countries entering no female athletes at the Paralympic Games appears to be on the decline. Table 2 (below) shows the percentage of National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) from each continental association, relative to the total number of NPCs, that had no female participants at the last six Paralympic Games. Up to the Athens 2004 Games, with the exception ofAsia, the general trend clearly demonstrated a decrease in countries entering no women at the Paralympic Games from four of the continents. However, inBeijingtwo noteworthy changes occurred in these figures. Firstly, the percentage of African nations bringing no women to the Games rose sharply. This coincides with the participation of a number of African nations in the Paralympic Games for the first time, possibly as a result of the development work IPC and other agencies have been doing on in Africa. Many of these nations only brought very small teams and possibly due to a combination of factors such as economics, lack of development of female sporting opportunities etc, chose to bring male athletes. The other change of note is the apparent decrease in Asian NPCs not taking women toBeijing. In reality the number of NPCs from Asia not taking women to Beijing remained the same as in Athens, but the large increase in NPCs from Africa and a slight increase in the Oceania and Americas regions not taking women to Beijing meant the figure for Asia dropped in overall terms.

Table 2. Percentage of NPCs by continental affiliation with no female participants in relation to the total number of teams with no female participants over the last twenty years.





Europe (EOC)




Americas (PASO)




Africa (ANOCA)




Asia (OCA)




Oceania (ONOC)










Americas (PASO)

Africa (ANOCA)

Asia (OCA)

Oceania (ONOC)





















In line with Sherrill’s (1997) findings regarding the Atlanta Parampic Games the vast majority of all countries not sending female participants to Beijing had team sizes of less than nine and the lack of female participants in these teams probably reflect economic limitations, possibly with an underlying bias towards male sport and a lack of opportunities for women. When comparing the same countries participation at the Beijing Olympic Games it is found that all countries in continents other than Asia and thirteen of the fifteen countries inAsiawho had no female participants at the Paralympics did have female participants at the Olympic Games. Their lack of female participation at the Paralympics may be due to a lack of development of disability sport within these countries, possibly exacerbated by cultural issues around disability and gender. Of the remaining two Asian countriesSaudi ArabiaandQatar(both strongly Muslim states) had no women at the Olympic or Paralympic Games despite fielding a total of 34 men at the Olympics and 5 at the Paralympics. This appears to highlight another barrier to female participation in sport – that of religious and cultural issues. However, it should be pointed out that in Athens there were five countries from Asia in this situation who fielded a total of 37 men at the Athens Olympics and 20 at the Athens Paralympics, so it would appear that things are possibly changing for the better. In fact one country, Kuwait, who fielded 8 men and zero women at the Beijing Olympic Games actually included one woman in their team of eight at the Beijing Paralympic Games.

Although participation rates for both female Olympic and Paralympic participants are steadily increasing relative to their male counterparts there are many issues relating to opportunity, prejudice and body image that are still preventing disabled females from getting involved in sport and reaching the highest levels. These barriers may also be exacerbated by political, cultural and religious issues relating to women’s role expectations within a specific society. It would appear from the data that the participation of women at the Summer Paralympic Games is on the increase with more countries entering female athletes. There are still many differences, however, between continents and even between sports and there is still a long way to go before anything like equity is reached.

Sherrill, C., 1997, Paralympic Games 1996: Feminist and Other Concerns: What’s Your Excuse? Palaestra, Winter; p. 32 – 38.


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