Women's sports push on against odds

The Matildas celebrate winning the Asian Cup in 2010.
February 14, 2015

Sport is a huge feature of Australian society, and the way it is promoted helps shape our view of men and women.

So it was refreshing to see a female sports commentator, Stephanie Brantz, leading the discussion on the ABC during the men’s football (soccer) Asian Cup held last month in Australia. The resources and media dedicated to this event, however, is something that women athletes and sports teams can only dream about.

Many women athletes and teams have achieved great success, but only a few achieve the esteem and popularity of Dawn Fraser or Kathy Freeman.

The Australian women’s hockey team, the Hockeyroos, have won three Olympic gold medals, two World Cups and three Commonwealth Games gold medals. They were named Australia’s Team of the Year five times and best team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

The Matildas, the Australian women’s football team has won the Oceania Football Confederation three times and the Women’s Asian Cup once. They are ranked tenth in the world by world football governing body FIFA and yet neither of these teams gets a whole program dedicated to them.

The advertising for the men's Asian Cup consisted of beautiful pictures of Socceroos’ team members. The photos depicted strong, athletic bodies, brimming with confidence and skill; photos that aim to create heroes and no doubt role models.

This is precisely what the media and Australian society has always done; promoted the male athlete as a hero, as a symbol of male excellence; a model for what young men should strive to look and be like.

This public image has evolved over the years from the gentleman cricketer to the larrikin to the bad boy of the Australian Football League (AFL) or other football codes. But in all its configurations, it has remained an omnipresent and powerful image for boys and young men. There is no equivalent, ubiquitous female sporting role model.

While enthusiastically and relentlessly promoting male athletes and sports teams, the media pays little attention to female athletes or female sport teams. The situation is getting worse, with the ABC deciding last year to cut its broadcasting of Australia's women's basketball and soccer leagues.

So when I watch the nightly news and they announce that the next item will be sport, I frequently yell: “No, stupid, it’s the male sport segment.” Overwhelmingly, these segments include several reports exclusively about male football codes, golf, cricket or perhaps boxing.

These nightly sport reports would give any alien watching the idea that female earthlings don’t do sport. Check out the “sports” section of a newspaper and often the only female mentioned or shown in a photo will be a racing horse.

Regrettably, girls and women are discouraged in many ways from being athletic. Swirk, an online education site, states: “In the 1950s, traditional etiquette and a dominant masculine culture generally confined women to 'refined' sports like croquet and tennis.

“Even when they did play sport, women's results were often reported in the social pages of newspapers rather than in news sections. Women themselves generally considered their participation to be a recreational pursuit rather than a serious, competitive one.”

Some sports, even today, are sometimes deemed too aggressive for women by some administrations, in sports such as boxing, wrestling and rugby codes, with barriers placed against women taking part. Despite this, women have become boxers, wrestlers and rugby players.

Until about the 1960s, women who were muscular or physically strong were not regarded as feminine. Even today, some women seek to be fit but avoid sports that might develop their muscles.

The current female body shape that is widely promoted is very skinny and is counter-posed to the muscular and powerful body of someone like the very successful tennis star Serena Williams.

It was not until 1987 that Jackie Joyner-Kersee, one of the greatest track and field athletes, became the first woman athlete to appear on the cover of the US magazine, Sports Illustrated although the magazine was first published in 1954.

But since 1964, this magazine has published a swim suit section, which continues to this day and has spawned a television show, videos and calendars. But don’t imagine that the photos show female athletes demonstrating their athletic prowess.

A major disincentive is the way the media treats women athletes. Sometimes it is sexual objectification such as the swimsuit delinquency of Sports Illustrated.

Other times it is patronising attitudes, like the Sydney Morning Herald’s January’s headline about some of the Australian women tennis players, referring to them as girls: “Girls bow out after third round of open.”

Over January 17 to 25, the “Tour Down Under” was held in South Australia. The country’s best female cyclists took part in the first inaugural women’s tour. Sadly, despite being professionals, many women struggle to earn about one-tenth of male cyclists’ earnings.

It is not uncommon to hear about women racing in return for airline tickets, team kits or maybe a few bikes. Women also earn less prize money than men.

This highlights another of the barriers to women’s participation in sport. It reflects a lack of respect.

The attention that cycling attracts is overwhelmingly devoted to male cyclists. Hundreds of reporters always greet the male finalists. Female cyclists are lucky if they see a smattering of reporters.

This is discouraging and infuriating. Such behaviour undermines one important way that women and girls can gain physical, mental and emotional strength.

Research has clearly found that sport bolsters self-image. Dr Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and author of eight books, points out that sport is a “major source of strength” for young girls. She thinks that sports allow girls to see their bodies as functional, as opposed to decorative, teaches them discipline in the quest for excellence, as well as cooperation, and management of pressure in stressful situations.

The biased and sexist portrayal of sport leads to a common sight at any Australian school at lunchtime; the boys playing cricket or football while the girls are sitting in groups talking.

But another aspect of the pervasive hero worship of male sport is its misogynist culture.

Male athletes are held up as heroes and gods. Until recently, their bad behaviour was viewed as something to emulate. “Just boys being bods”.

It has really only been in recent years that bad behaviour has been recognised as a serious concern that requires serious consequences and rectification. However change has occurred slowly, if at all.

There are many examples. For instance, cricket star Shane Warne was involved in many scandals, which included taking a banned substance, receiving money from bookmakers and sending lewd and harassing text messages to women.

But while suspended for taking a banned substance, he was hired by Channel 9 as a commentator and was allowed to play in charity cricket matches.

The AFL and National Rugby League (NRL) have featured many examples of bad behaviour — from on and off field punch-ups to sexual harassment charges to rape charges and gang rape allegations.

Such behaviour has been excused or tolerated. In the past, clubs regularly paid the fines of players. Some football teams were rewarded for successful seasons by a night out at strip clubs or with parties where prostitutes “performed” for the players.

The Age reported in February 2004 on gang rape allegations made against players from NRL team, the Canterbury Bulldogs: “There are stories of prostitutes being hired for group sex, and ‘bonus’ points being given if women are shared among mates. The practice is known as ‘roasting’, a reference to meat being stuffed.

“The players insist none of what took place was an offence. Nor was it that unusual. One player said it was a typical night for some of the Canterbury players.

“'Some of the boys love a “bun”,' said one. ‘Gang banging is nothing new for our club or the rugby league.’”

There are many examples of bad or sexist conduct in other sports, whether it is cycling, golf or tennis. These are the role models that many boys idolise and strive to be like.

These role models often exhibit standards and values that help to create a misogynist culture. Moreover they have not, until recently — and reluctantly — been pulled up for such behaviour.

It is a credit to all women athletes that despite the odds and barriers, they have won their right to participate, to be seen as professionals and as serious athletes. It is time that Australian society — the media and sports administrations in particular — honour all women athletes and seriously promote women’s sports.

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