Ironman Champion, writer, broadcaster and advocate for women in sport, Sara Gross, PhD, presents her Vision for the Future of Women in Sport to a live audience at the Challenge Penticton Triathlon on August 26, 2016.
Hi everybody. Thanks for actually showing up, I was a little bit worried, and then Kathy said it had sold out- Yes! When I asked our organizer, Kathy, what the speaking schedule would be, she said that it would be Silken [Laumann], and then me. Silken does this all of the time, she travels around the world and speaks to people everywhere and I almost wrote Kathy back and said: “I think you have the wrong order. I don’t have as much experience as Silken.” Then I thought, no, game on! The pressure is on and I am going to have to do a really good presentation. I knew Silken would bring her A game and she did. Some of those themes, I love hearing stories like that. Silken is only a decade older than I am, but she comes from a time when there were no change-rooms for women when she showed up to her rowing club. I mean think about that! And a lot of what I want to talk about today is a vision for the future of women in sport. So there is no way we went from, within our generation not having women’s change-rooms to as far as we need to be in the if you will, “women in sport” movement. That’s what I want to talk about, how we move this conversation forward, what our vision is, and how we get there.
Erica Wiebe won the gold medal in the wrestling, 75kilos. This is an amazing woman. I don’t know if you saw this week, but already post Olympics she is doing videos with a fellow wrestler about body image; she is just an amazing woman to have at the forefront of women in sport in Canada. We love Erica.
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The Olympic Games of Women
They are calling this Olympic Games, the ‘Olympic Games of Women’. The press is all over this. But someone said to me the other day; “Well, they said that in 1984 too,” but every Olympic Games should be the Olympic Games of women! In 1984 they were running the marathon for the first time, and now we have more female medallists in a lot of Western countries than their male counterparts. One of the reasons this is the Olympics of Women is because the U.S. is seeing the outcomes of Title IX. Basically in the U.S., institutions of education are not allowed to be sexist in the way that they spend money, so high-schools, colleges, universities- and that is for everything, but it affected sport the most. They spent so much money on college sport and suddenly all the money that went to the men’s football team – this started in 1972, by the way – they had to split all this money between the men and the women, so now you see incredible gaps and breadths in the women’s sport especially in the U.S. The U.S. women would have been the third country overall if they had been an independent country; they won 27 gold medals. It just goes to show that when you create those opportunities we get the outcomes that we want. The second reason that it was the ‘Olympic Games of Women’ because in a feminist way we got ‘woke.’ Suddenly we realized the way the commentators were talking about women, and nobody was allowed to get beat up on Twitter. I brought some examples because it is kind of sad, yet funny at the same time.
So here is a personal favourite:
Of course they said that, but they didn’t get away with it. Lots of people reacted to this, we are definitely more awake and paying attention.
The NBC guy who said that U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, who are utterly amazing, looked like girls hanging out at the mall…
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The body shaming still happens… I don’t think you need to speak Spanish to recognize what is going on. Alexa Moreno is a Mexican gymnast, and when I googled her I found a bunch of tweets and images all over the internet like this, and it is very sad!
The body shaming also, there were a few other examples. The US women’s gymnastics: there was a whole thing on Twitter about how they were too muscular; you can’t win!
Our own homegrown CBC saying that a proposal is better than an Olympic medal:
This might be my favourite. When the BBC reporter asked Andy Murray what it was like to be the first person to win two Olympic gold medals… The person at the bottom states, “unless women are persons, obviously.” To which Andy Murray, to his credit said: “Yeah, I think Venus and Serena have won quite a few times…” So yes, they aren’t getting away with it.
And this one, who she is married to is obviously more important than her identity.
I couldn’t pick my favourite out of these…. Katie Ledeky incidentally just happened to break the world record on the same day that Michael Phelps tied for silver.
My point being, it is kind of humorous, but they aren’t getting away with it. But we have always talked about women in sport like this! It is only just now because of social media, because the way the conversation is going that we are commenting on it and we are saying ‘No!’ This guy [referencing Phelps article] got attacked, and I would be surprised if he still has his job! People are waking up.
The question that I wanted to put to you is:
Equality, more women in coaching, sports leadership, to be equal in all ways; from media to leadership to opportunities for girls all the way to opportunities for elite athletes. Equal opportunities for all.
I’ve thought a lot about this actually and here is what I came up with: what I would really like is to see a future in which we don’t have to talk about this anymore. That’s what we really want.
I knew Silken would talk about her experiences as an athlete, so I wanted to talk about my journey with where I came from, from 50 Women to Kona. At the Ironman World Championships, after the automatic qualifiers they have 35 slots for the pro women, and 50 for the men. There is a large group of us who think this is utterly unfair. This had come to my attention a few times but the real trigger for me, this was published publicly, but in September two years ago now, we got an email from Andrew Messick, the CEO of Ironman, and in that email it said regarding slot parity; we aren’t going to do it, we think that the way we are doing it is fair and then in the last point of the email he said, we are having new standards and you aren’t allowed to bitch on social media any more about this.
Then there was radio silence from the age group pros and the other women. Does nobody react to this the way I do? You can’t say we aren’t getting equality after you’ve asked for it, and then tell us to be quiet about it. My approach was to get educated. So I educated about the history of women in triathlon, the fact that triathlon has an amazing history of gender equality which is something that could be a whole other talk in itself. I was an academic before I was a professional athlete, so it is my instinct to go to the library when you want to find things out. So I learned an awful lot about women in sport; a lot about feminist theory in relation to sport etcetera.
One of the things that really struck me, and in my journey was that I realized when the second wave of feminism came in Simone de Bouvoiur wrote a book called The Second Sex and her observation was that in our society man is the human and woman is other. Man is active and woman is passive.
Even though we’ve come a long way- we aren’t in 1949 anymore, we haven’t come as far as we need to go in society in general in terms of women’s rights. And you see that in terms of equal pay, I don’t need to give all the examples. It occurred to me while I was doing this research that women doing sport is actually kind of counter-cultural in that way. Women cannot do sport and be passive – that is a woman being active, aggressive- these images of women doing sport or writing about women doing sport, it is a really powerful thing and not just for the women doing sport, but could have a large scale effect on our society. This was like my “aha” moment- this could be really important! I truly believe that having more women… the media is a massive thing… 4% of mainstream coverage is of women’s sport, obviously then 96% is of men. If it was 50/50 and we had images of active women in our culture, how amazing would that be [for our culture]? So that was my realization and my journey.
I grabbed a bunch of images of sports that I have had the opportunity to cover.
This is netball by the way, and we don’t have netball here. In New Zealand they play it on prime time TV. There are leagues and people are professionals- it is amazing:
There is Sarah Anne-Brault, one of our Canadian Olympians being not passive:
Mountain biking.Did anyone do the cross triathlon today? Women getting dirty… love it:
The bronze medal team for Canadian women rugby:
We have our para-athlete, Kate [Doughty], who will be competing in a couple of weeks in Rio:
Equestrian: the only sport that exists where men and women go head to head:
Weightlifting. Imagine if we didn’t have this image on tv, only every 4 years… on prime time tv I mean… What a change in cultural perception of women are and what they are capable of and what we can do if we have this:
What can we do? Basically it is a big question with some simple answers. The first thing I thought of what we can do to make a change is to watch and attend. So they tell you, oh but people don’t want to watch women’s sport, that’s why never play it. But actually I do want to watch women’s sport and if it was on prime TV I would watch it, and I would bring my daughter and I would sit down and watch it. Attendance too! Find a women’s sporting event, go and support the team and that will make all the difference for how they can make their money. We get more money into these sports, we get more media and it continues.
The second one, encourage others. It is obviously something we can do, and all probably do in our lives. Encourage kids, talk to your daughters about sport, talk to your sons about women in sport.
Play. That is the big one for this weekend. One of the magical things about triathlon is that you never know who you are going to inspire. I often think that everyone who is there (especially in a long distance race) has been inspired by seeing someone out on the course and they go, well if you can do that, I can do that! That is how is goes, and you never know. If you are running down the street, during your marathon or your 30km run, you never know who you’ve inspired. Just getting out there and being active and playing- has anyone had this experience where you put your picture of your first triathlon on Facebook and people from your high-school say: “you did a triathlon? Wow!” and then they think, well if you can do it, I can do it. That is how it works, and that is what I think is amazing about our sport. I also think, and I know some people hate social media, but I think that recording, writing, taking pictures, sharing these things, I think this can have a huge effect.
One of my neighbours who is from Saudi Arabia told me that Instagram is changing opportunities for women in SA because they didn’t know that other women weren’t as suppressed as they are until Instagram, and they had all these pictures of women wearing whatever they wanted. And these women who had been denied access to the internet thought well maybe I want to wear that, maybe I don’t want to wear this anymore.
That is a very extreme example but on a smaller level. We now have social media and can spread around, just in the same way that Twitter can call out crappy commentators and their stupid comments, we can spread around whatever message we want and it will get shared and it will get out there. You can do it in whatever form you want! You can blog, you can take a picture, you can do this and that so I think these things are what we can really do! I really found, especially with 5Q and the other women that are pushing for it, that my voice could make a difference.
So I sat on it for months after we got that horrible letter from Andrew Messick and thought “no, I need to say something” and realized that the power of that and the knock-on effect and that is the same for all of us, I am not special in that way. Your voice matters. That’s what I want to leave you with.
Special thanks to Challenge Penticton and its sponsors for organising this event during the 2016 Challenge Penticton event in British Columbia, Canada on August 26, 2016