A Discussion on Women's Sport

I was recently asked the following questions about women’s sport.   Some of my answers surprised me.  I hope this conversation continues until all girls are actively engaged in sport. 

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 What do you think is the biggest barrier in driving visibility of women’s sport?

To be honest, I think women are the biggest barrier.  Men love sport, and spend lots of money to see their counterparts play.  Aside from the athletes I train with, I don’t have any female friends who regularly watch and follow women’s sport leagues.  So much effort is made trying to convince male audiences to watch female sport.  Women need to value and enjoy sport if we want female athletes to have more visibility.  Women need to value female athletes more than models and reality stars.

 Why do you think it is taking so long for things to change?

It takes a long time for things like thought patterns and societal norms to change.  There has to be a very strong motivating factor supported by a large and vocal group in order for this to happen quickly.  Corporate businesses, governments, schools, religious groups, mums and dads need to be clear on why the promotion of sport for women is beneficial and relevant for them.

 What do you think male athletes can do to help drive visibility of female sports?

One of the best things they can do is become vocal fans!

 What role do you think sponsorship brands should play?

One of the biggest roles brands play is the provision of a platform.  The fact that a brand chooses to actively support women in sport already speaks volumes.  Actions speak louder than words, and the ambassadors companies align themselves with and where they spend their money sends a very strong message to the public.  Speaking as a female athlete, I’m not sure it is appropriate to demand people like and watch my sport, so the best thing a sponsor can do is give my sport visibility.  Give the public the opportunity to see what I do and then let them make their own choice.

 What radical things must change in order for women’s sports to be taken as seriously as men’s?

We need to eliminate the expectation that women’s sport needs to take on the same shape as men’s sport.  By in large, female athletes are not as strong or a fast as their male counterparts.  This is a neutral statement, and all it means is that females will play the game differently.  Women may have to play more creatively or strategically.  It is still exciting, it is still entertaining, and it is still an impressive display of sporting talent.  If women’s sports keep trying to mimic men’s sports, they will simply end up being a second rate version.  We need to find a way to do sport on our own terms and be proud of it.

What does equality look like in women's sport?

             Last week, I attended the “Transforming Sport: Women’s Sport Conference” hosted by Women in Sport.  It was a great event: well hosted, well attended, lots of opportunities for sharing ideas and concerns.  However, one moment sticks out for me.  During the BBC 5 Live Game Changers broadcast, the debate shifted to the discussion of sponsorship disparity between male and female athletes (only 0.4% of UK sports sponsorship invested in women’s sport). 

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A young girl from the audience bravely raised her hand to say that female athletes should be paid the same as male athletes because they are doing the same job.  The room erupted into cheers and applause.  But I found myself in the awkward position of being unable to join the applause.  

 I am a professional female athlete who is passionate about the involvement of women of all ages in sport.  But I don’t agree.            

I feel like the wrong metaphor is being used when it comes to discussing athlete salaries.  There is no doubt in my mind that two accountants working the same number of hours producing the same quality of work should be paid the same salary regardless of age, race, or gender.  But I don’t think of athletes as performing jobs.  When it comes to commercial considerations, we are entrepreneurs trying to sell a product, which is ourselves.  The reality for all entrepreneurs is that product price is dictated by market interest.  Millions of entrepreneurs around the world, from craftsmen, to musicians, to hoteliers can attest to the fact that market interest and price don’t always correlate with fairness, effort, or quality of work.

               Women often play a central role in dictating where money is spent, and a company would be crazy not to try and appeal to the female market.  I hate that Under Armour America recently hired Gisele to front their women’s sport line, and not an elite female athlete.  Something needs to change.  We can vilify the media and we can vilify corporate business, but I think what needs to change is me.  I need to show that I value sport (if indeed I do) with my actions.  We need girls flocking to PE classes, analysing the offensive strategy of last night’s netball game, and saving up to buy carbon fibre race tires.  These are the sorts of “market” changes that I am interested in and want to help bring about.


Things I would tell my 20 year old athlete self...

It has been 10 years since I got my first running leg!  I have enjoyed every part of my career and learned so much through the experience.  But here are some lessons I could have stood to learn earlier:

# 1) Consider the possibility that you may dedicate the next decade of your life, missing several important social occasions, forgoing other career opportunities, enduring endless grueling workouts, only to wake up the morning of your Olympic final and have your dream shattered by food poisoning.  Would those 10 years pursuing your athletic dream still have been worth it?  If the answer is no, then pick a different career.  If it is yes, remember in both the good times and the bad that you chose this.

#2.) One loss doesn’t make you a loser, and one win doesn’t make you a winner.  Always keep your perspective and aim for consistency.

#3.) Be intentional about maintaining friendships inside and outside your sport.  Sport alone cannot fulfil you.  No matter how talented you are, no matter how many wins, you can never escape the basic human requirement of friendship.  Winning, but having no one to celebrate with will hurt more than losing.

#4.) Make up a list now of all the things you will do when you get injured: new skills you would like to learn, classes you would like to take, internships that interests you.  Notice I said when you get injured, not if.  You are not special; it happens to everyone. It’s far better to use your time productively instead of moping.

#5.) Take ownership of yourself and your career.  Do not automatically deflect important decisions to experts.  Be respectful, be grateful, and acknowledge the wisdom and counsel of others. But remember that you are also an expert when it comes to yourself.

#6.) I cringe when I think of the number of receptions I have been to filled with very important people working for very successful companies, and all I did was stand in a corner talking to other athletes.  The most valuable thing you can amass in your athletic career are contacts, not prize money and sponsorship (unless you are going to be the next Usain Bolt, then you can ignore this one).  Prize money and sponsors disappear when you retire as an athlete.  Your contact network is what will help you to start a successful round 2.

#7.) Live your personal life and your sporting life according to your own set of values - do not buy into cliche sport quotes without critically assessing them.  This includes reciting them in interviews and allowing them residence in your subconscious.  For example, watch this video of Derek Redmond's 400m semi final  at the 1992 Olympics

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2G8KVzTwfw .

Then see if you still agree with Vince Lombardi when he says “Winning isn’t everything.  It is the only thing.”