By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - The quest for sex equality at the London Olympics is going where no Games has gone before with men taking up some of the previously women-only roles as flower and medal bearers at the victory ceremonies.
Dressed in purple suits with white collars similar to the outfits in Star Trek, the men stand by with bouquets and medals as women in purple dresses escort the athletes at the 805 victory ceremonies in 30 venues.
It is first time that men have been involved as medal bearers which has been hailed as another step taken at London towards achieving the Olympic goal of gender equality.
The London organizing committee, LOCOG, said the victory ceremonies were designed to champion the Olympic values of equality and neutrality.
"Symbolically this is important and I am proud Britain has made the change at the London Olympics," said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, a UK charity that campaigns for women's involvement in sport.
The mixed presentation teams are a far cry from Beijing four years ago where organizers set strict physical requirements for the female "hostesses", insisting their eyes were three-tenths the length of their face, they had "elastic skin," and a "plump but not fat body."
The Beijing hostesses were also trained to stand for hours in high-heels and to hone the perfect smile exposing eight teeth by practicing before a mirror with a chopstick.
The inclusion of men in the award ceremonies at London is one of several victories for equal opportunity campaigners at the 2012 Games.
Women boxers are making their debut at the Olympics in 2012, knocking out the last all-male sports at the summer games, and every country for the first time has female competitors with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei bringing women this year.
The number of gold medals available for women has risen to 132 at London compared to 127 at Beijing while men will receive 162 gold medals in 2012, down from 165 four years ago.
The United States and Canadian teams have more women than men in their teams which could help lift the percentage of women athletes to an expected 45 percent from 42 percent in Beijing.
Women rights campaigners welcomed the changes but called for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to do more to meet its target of 50/50 participation at the Games as well ensuring women hold 20 percent of positions on leading sports bodies.
IOC President Jacques Rogge said progress had been made.
"For the first time in Olympic history all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality," Rogge said at the opening ceremony of the Games that run from July 27 until August 12.
But men's groups, while welcoming the progress for women, have called for equality for men as well, with two sports at the summer Olympics -- synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics -- off limits despite growing numbers of male participants.
A lobby group of male synchronized swimmers wrote to the IOC and swimming's governing body FINA in June to argue that men should no longer be excluded from this event at the Olympics.
The group, which includes the London swimming group Out To Swim, said this was gender discrimination which contradicted the Olympic Charter.
"The world has moved on and this is an anachronism that should change," Stephen Adshead, manager of the Out to Swim Angels synchronized swimming team, told Reuters.
"Maybe in the past there was not sufficient momentum behind these men's sports but there is now."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Nigel Hunt)
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