Team Talk by Chris Stafford

The changing face of women in sport

A time to reflect on a landmark year for women, to celebrate all athletes and recognize that the events of 2018 on and off the field that have heralded a turning point in the history of women in sport

As I pen this review of 2018 the year is almost over and what a year it has been for women in sport.  Wherever you look we have celebrated women in every sport they play, champions have been crowned, records broken, and headlines made. While we have so many reasons to celebrate the progress that is being made to recognize, and most importantly respect, the achievement of women and girls, this is without a doubt long overdue in the history of women in sport. Yes, we have come some way in finally making the front page of the broadsheets but it has not been without a fight from the athletes and the supporters of women in sport.  With the power of social media and easy access to digital technology we have seen a rapid growth in the extent to which supporters of women’s sport have rallied to raise the profile of both the athletes and their sport. We have been educated too in many aspects of the game, whether it be soccer or curling. It is so easy to find videos to help fans enjoy their sport, and learn about others too. Organizations for girls and women in sport have grown immensely, as have fan groups and podcasts. 

Some years ago I voiced my skepticism about the ‘weekend warriors’ in ‘journalism’— the bloggers who were popping up on websites everywhere, and, mostly without remuneration, while often undermining professional journalists.  I imagined then that this would herald the start of a new era in how stories would be told from an individual perspective instead of fair and unbiased journalism. It would change the face of media coverage and it has; whether for the best is another discussion. Suffice it to say that on balance, even though jobs have been lost in traditional media, there are many benefits to this broader coverage, not least of all for women’s sport.  While not everyone who shares their opinion on a game is, by any means, an expert, they are, for the most part, passionate about sport, the athletes, and the culture. They are all championing women and giving the athletes and sport more exposure across the length and breadth of the internet. This is coverage they would not otherwise have had. So I have come to accept this can only be a good thing providing it is done respectfully and truthfully.

One of our principles here at WiSP Sports is to honor and respect the women and their achievements, allowing them to share their stories in their own voice. I mention this because I see a growing trend in how women in sport are regarded. Yes, there are trolls and chauvinists; largely the uneducated or sexist male, determined to undermine women at every turn. But the tide is turning with the performances of sportswomen everywhere, demonstrating that women’s sport is as exciting and compelling for the fans as it is challenging the athletes themselves, because the bar for them is constantly being raised. Which leads me nicely to my next topic; the quality of women’s sport.

What a joy it is to see the preparation and unwavering dedication of female athletes today, their growth, their development, their performances in this millennium alone, has been enormous.  It’s no wonder records are being broken as athletes and teams are often taking us by surprise.  I often go ‘wow’ when I read news of yet another notable performance or watch how team tactics are playing out on the field. It really is thrilling.

We only have to look at Ireland’s Hockey Team who started the World Cup this summer as underdogs. It would have taken a brave person to bet on them making the finals. These women had not done it before and they were up against the best in the world. But no sooner had they beaten the USA in the opening game that people’s ears were starting to prick up (to use an equestrian term). I sat up and paid attention, I was already feeling their energy and ‘can do’ attitude – they had brought their ‘A game’ and they shared a belief that they could go further than ever before. This was an amateur team who bootstrapped their way and showed that determination, dedication, self belief and team spirit was a potent combination.  When they won the silver medal against the favorites The Netherlands, they earned a new and well-earned respect.  It was an easy choice to name them the WiSP Sports Team of the Year.

And speaking of preparation I marvel at how sophisticated training in so many sports has become. One great example is ski racing. If you haven’t followed a ski racer on Instagram yet I recommend if for training ideas.  And if you suffered an injury and need inspiration for rehabbing, look no further than these ladies. Their core strength alone is amazing and the routines they go through will take your breath away. 

So many performances this year took my breath away and brought a tear to my eye. If you follow sailing you will know that more women took part in the Volvo Ocean Race than every before, thanks to a change in rules. There were women on every boat, so we knew that history would be made, whoever crossed the line first, as they would be the first women to win this prestigious offshore race.  With the closest of battles to the finishing line in The Hague it was thrilling to see Dutch sailor Carolijn Brouwer, alongside France’s Marie Riou aboard Dongfeng, make their mark in sailing history. Carolijn is a three-time Olympian and three-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran who was also a member of Team SCA in the previous edition. I have been following these women for a while and it was fun to catch up with them again during the Newport stopover of the race where I spoke to Carolijn.  It has been eye opening to see what goes into offshore sailing, the courage, the skill, and importantly the mental game needed to endure long periods at sea in the most arduous and often life-threatening conditions. I have so much respect for what it takes to be a world class offshore sailor so my hat is off to all these women, not least of all to Dee Caffari who skippered a young, mixed gender crew in the race. 

It was Carolijn’s achievement in that race that earned her the WiSP Sportswoman of the Year title to add to her many other awards. And just this week Carolijn, along with Australian Skipper Stacey Jackson, who is also a Volvo Ocean Race veteran, and the all-female crew on Wild Oats X / Ocean Respect Racing finished 6th in line honors and 2nd in handicap in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race.  Congratulations to all these women, proving yet again that they can compete with men on equal terms.

We launched a few new shows in 2018 and three of them were hosted by coaches focusing on the role of women coaches and their training strategies. We are pleased to partner with WeCOACH with their bi-weekly podcast and share inspirational stories of female coaches across a variety of sports in the U.S. 

Another well-known coach to launch her own show—Hockey Talk—has been Shannon Miller, who made headlines this year by winning a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota-Duluth for sexual discrimination and retaliation.  Shannon conveys her depth of knowledge and skills with her weekly podcast, and there are lessons to be learned for any sport.

Shannon’s win in the courts came in a year in which women fought back against the establishment and, most importantly, spoke out about individuals abusing their power by committing the most heinous crimes against young athletes. The damage caused, not just by Larry Nassar but other coaches and officials whether directly or by being complicit in their knowledge of abuse, has permanently scarred the landscape of sport.  While this year will be remembered for the #metoo movement, I believe we are looking at years to come to be our time as women in sport gain power and recognition and establish a balance of fair play both on and off the field. We salute the many brave girls and women who had come forward and resolutely brought about long overdue justice for themselves and future generations. 

It is this personal and public courage that is recognized in our 2018 WiSP Sports Coach of the Year. Five-time Olympic show jumper and Team USA Coach Anne Kursinski courageously spoke out about the sexual abuse that she suffered as a very young girl while training with her coach Jimmy Williams.  Her story is horrific and demonstrates the extent of abuse that has been buried within sport. Anne has long been a role model for girls and women in equestrian sport, she is a mentor to so many at all levels. Her leadership as a coach is an example to all, especially given what she has overcome to be an Olympian against all odds and a much respected coach worldwide.  This was Anne’s reaction to being recognized as the WiSP Coach of the Year: “I am honored and humbled to have been named WiSP Coach of the Year. I have to say I got a bit teary-eyed reading it. Thank you. Thank you. I feel I really represent all women, in sports and in life. By sharing my story, if I could help even one child, I would feel I made a difference. I have had such support throughout this, hearing from other women, girls and men. I am sure I have helped more. By speaking our truths, we all help each other and create meaningful change.”   (Anne’s story on The Horse Show podcast and transcript is here)

Equestrian sport came into sharp focus this year when I attended the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG). As well as our daily podcast coverage I took the opportunity to do live coverage on our Facebook Page, which proved to be very popular.  After WEG we created our Facebook ‘Face to Face’ show, which has been a great way to introduce our audience to athletes and our hosts, as well as have discussions on a wide range of topics that affect women in sport. The Living Brave series with Olympic swimmer Samantha Livingstone has already established an audience and we will be continuing the show in 2019.

There have been so many notable sporting achievements this year that it would take a book to give them the space they deserve. I do, however, want to give a shout out to cricket, netball and rugby for continuing to raise the game. It’s truly a privilege to watch the standard of play emerging in these sports at all levels.  It’s easier to follow the stars in mainstream sports such as tennis, soccer and golf but there are world champions in all sports and they all deserve equal recognition. And off the field we have seen an upward trend of women in sports administration, it may be slow but it’s happening and we must ensure this trend continues in order to increase representation and ensure women’s voices everywhere are heard.

As we look ahead to 2019, WiSP will celebrate its fourth anniversary and we shall continue to cover the important issues affecting women in sport as well as the athletes, coaches and competitions. We take pride in being totally inclusive of all sports, more than any other media outlet, and this is thanks to the wonderful contributions from our hosts and guests that make us a leader in the media, as well as the world’s largest podcast network for women’s sport. As the saying goes, it takes a village, so thank you to each and every one of you who have helped us give a voice to women in sport. 

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year with the successes you dream of, the love and support you depend on and the good fortune to make it happen when it counts the most.  Let’s make 2019 another year to celebrate girls and women in sport everywhere.

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