Why Are Some Olympic Women’s Teams Flying Coach While the Men Fly Business?

Japan’s World Cup-winning women’s soccer team flew to the London Olympics in premium economy class, while their male counterparts in the under-23 team were taken in business. Why?

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Toru Hanai / REUTERS

From left: Japan's women's World Cup soccer team head coach Norio Sasaki, captain Homare Sawa and player Shinobu Ohno pose with other team members during a photo session after a news conference in Tokyo July 19, 2011.

Japan’s World Cup-winning women’s soccer team flew to the London Olympics in premium economy class, while their male counterparts in the under-23 team got to travel in business class. Why? According to the Japanese Football Association (JFA), it’s because the men are professional players and the women are not.

(MORE: Women’s Football: Nadeshiko Japan and Homare Sawa)

Speaking with Japanese media after the 13-hour flight to Paris on Monday, Homare Sawa, the team’s captain and FIFA’s 2011 player of the year, remarked: “I guess it should have been the other way around. Even in terms of age, we are senior.” The incident has caused considerable controversy, especially considering the stature of the women’s team, one of Japan’s brightest hopes for gold medal glory this summer. Following the tsunami and nuclear crisis which devastated the nation in 2011, their 3-1 win on penalties over the U.S. in the World Cup final in July instantly rocketed them to stardom and gave the country cause for celebration.

(MORE: Japan’s Uplifting Women’s World Cup)

Sawa noted that the JFA did upgrade their flights back home to business following their World Cup victory last July, but it appears that this was an exception. As Krista Mahr writes in TIME’s Olympics special issue, Japanese women soccer players receive “far less funding, fewer sponsors and smaller fan base than their male counterparts.” This goes a long way in explaining why the men’s team, even the youth team, can afford to be professional full-time players, and the women still have to stick with being semi-pro. However the fortunes of women’s soccer took a positive turn following the national team’s spectacular World Cup win. The league, which was up until that point sponsored by Plenus Co., saw a flood of new sponsors from some of Japan’s biggest corporate names: Sumitomo Mitsui Card Co., Konami Digital Entertainment Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

How this translates into their treatment during the Olympics is unclear. The JFA President made a statement on Wednesday that the women would have to win gold for them to be considered for an upgrade once again, however the men, who are not considered medal-contenders at all, will be there whatever the result. There is also wider pressure on the Nadeshiko, as the women’s team is known, as it will not only be the JFA looking on them to do well, but the sponsors who will need encouragement to invest further into the women’s game.

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The double standards at play do not appear to be isolated to the Japanese team either. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported on the displeasure of Australia’s women’s basketball team at their treatment at the hands of the Australian Olympic Committee over the years. The team was flown over to London in a mix of business, premium economy and economy, while their male counterparts, who (unlike their female counterparts) have yet to medal at the Games, were all taken in business. The reasons given by a Basketball Australia spokesperson to justify the different travel arrangements was that both teams have different budgets, and factors such as the heights of the players are taken into consideration.

The governing body has now weighed in once again following the criticism it faced from national media and politicians. Scott Derwin, the Basketball Australia’s acting chief executive, noted that historically, the women’s team received more funding than the men’s, and added: “But the simple fact is when a policy results in gender inequality, it’s very clearly not the right policy going forward.” He has confirmed their aim to ensure equity in future travel arrangements.

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The Japanese women have yet to hear a similar commitment from the JFA. Part of the reason could be that the story received limited coverage in Japan, whereas it has been widely commented on elsewhere. Nikkan Sports daily were among the few to note the incident. “The JFA perpetuated the sexist divide that has existed in the world of soccer for a long time,” it wrote.

The women’s team were set to land at Birmingham airport on Friday afternoon ahead of their July 25 opener against Canada in Coventry. It is unclear which class they have been flown over in, but the gender politics in their sport will have to wait as they focus on the task at hand. The team suffered a 2-0 defeat against France on Thursday in their last friendly before the Games; and while they are currently ranked 3rd in the world, it will take a lot to beat the likes of the U.S. and Brazil, who are considered favorites for the gold.