Much has been said and scribbled about our female athletes’ success at the Olympian frolic in the high heat of Tokyo.
In the final accounting, Canadian women collected 18 medals in the three available hues, a haul that surpassed their trinket takeaway from the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil and tripled the men’s stockpile of shiny objects.
Our women succeeded in the water and on the water. On the soccer pitch and on the softball diamond. At the velodrome and on the mats of wrestling and judo and on the weightlifting platform.
Our men? They have world-class lickety-split, either running or walking. End of story.
So what, if anything, are we to make of this canyon-wide, she vs. he discrepancy? What exactly does it tell us about the state of sports across our vast tundra?
Actually, here’s a better question: What does it tell us about our sports media?
We know that jock journos sit up and take notice of our female athletes for two weeks every two years, give or take postponements due to a pandemic. They’re dispatched hither and yon to both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and, their inevitable grumbling about food, travel snarls, lousy lodgings and other inconveniences notwithstanding, it is considered a plum assignment. Very few go kicking and screaming to the exotic and distant locales that have been conned and fleeced into staging the five-ring circus.
But assign a big-city scribe or a talking head to a female sports event during Olympic off-years…well, that’s when they begin to stomp their feet and threaten to hold their breath.
How dare an editor have the bad manners to dispatch them to a local swimming hole or a school gymnasium for a natter with a current or future Olympian. Not when Auston Matthews is brushing his teeth or Drake is acting the fool at a Tranna Jurassics game. Where’s your priorities, man?
Oh, sure, there are exceptions. Like the women’s world hockey championship later this month in Calgary. News snoops will be on site. Few will grumble and some might even pay attention to one or two games. But once the final buzzer sounds and either Canada or the United States has been declared rulers of Ponytail Puck, the ladies will be put on ignore until the Beijing Olympics. Then, after another two-week frozen frolic, they’ll be steered toward the off-ramp and left there for the next 48 months.
We know this to be so because studies (on both sides of the U.S.-Canada divide) tell us that newspapers devote approximately 4-to-5 per cent of space in the sports section to female athletes. Ditto the share of air time on our sports networks.
That’s due, in part, to the reality that the majority (approximately 85 per cent) of decision-makers and influential opinionists in sports media are men. Jock journalism is their province.
A small sampling of the ingrained man-think was delivered by Damien Cox of the Toronto Star the other day. Noting the large gap in the medal haul between Canada’s female and male athletes, he tweeted: “I don’t care about the gender of Canadian athletes doing well at Olympics. Immaterial.” In another tweet, he doubled down, writing, “Gender doesn’t matter. We’re all Canadians. Period.”
Immaterial? Doesn’t matter?
How hopelessly and astonishingly myopic.
There’s a big picture out there that the attention-seeking Cox fails to see, mainly because he’s too busy twisting himself into a pretzel in a vain bid to be recognized as the most “woke” sports columnist in Canada.
How many little girls, after watching our national women’s soccer side win, then accept, their gold medals in Japan on Friday, rushed outside for a kickabout? How many asked their parents to take them to SportChek or Canadian Tire to purchase a soccer ball?
Julia Grosso was one of those little girls when our female footballers stepped on the podium to collect their bronze medals at the 2012 Games in London. Today, a gold trinket draped around her neck, the girl with the golden left boot is one of the big girls inspiring the little girls.
Just as she saw it and believed she could be it, they can, too.
To dismiss that as “immaterial” and submit that “gender doesn’t matter” is folly.
All kids need role models, but let’s be quite clear on something: Girls need female role models. Like Christine Sinclair and Stephanie Labbé and Julia Grosso and Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser and Penny Oleksiak. Indeed, research by the Women’s Sports Foundation shows that a lack of positive role models is among the main reasons girls quit sports at a rate double (triple in Canada) that of boys.
“Today’s girls are bombarded with images of external beauty, not those of confident, strong female athletic role models,” writes the WSF. “To some girls, fitting within the mold that they are constantly told to stay in is more important than standing out. Peer pressure can be hard for girls at any age; when that pressure isn’t offset with strong encouragement to participate in sports and healthy physical activity, the results may lead girls to drop out altogether.”
A chance meeting with a positive role model, Olympian Jennifer Botterill, is what led Natalie Spooner to our national women’s hockey team.
“I remember when I met ‘the girls’ and saw their gold medals I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to win them just like they’ve won them.’” Spooner told the Grindstone Award Foundation, which raises funds to support female youth hockey. “I met Jennifer Botterill in 2001 at a hockey camp. I would have been like 11 years old. That’s when I realized that they were actually real people and that I could be like them, you know, that there were women who were playing hockey and winning Olympic medals which was really cool to me.”
Girls and women also need a sports media that doesn’t treat them like second-hand Roses who belong on the back pages, if not completely ignored.
The trouble with sports media is they decide what is and isn’t news.
An example would be the Toronto 6, the sole professional women’s hockey outfit in Canada. The Toronto Sun rarely acknowledges The 6’s existence, and that’s usually in the form of a cheap shot from columnist Steve Simmons, while the Toronto Star provides token lip service. Just as they and other rags across the tundra helped ignore the Canadian Women’s Hockey League out of business, they might do the same to The 6.
Based on our rich heritage in Ponytail Puck, that’s irresponsible.
One oft-repeated refrain in the argument against more coverage of female sports is that “no one wants to watch it,” and it’s usually a man doing the talking. But it simply isn’t true.
There were 4.4 million sets of eyeballs glued to flatscreens when Julia Grosso’s left boot thumped the ball off goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl’s right hand and into the Swedish net to earn Canada its first Olympic soccer gold medal. Ya, 4.4 million watching women play footy on CBC. In mid-morning (in the East) or the breakfast hour (on the Left Flank). On a work day. Not exactly prime time.
And now its time for the decision-makers in sports media to acknowledge that female sports is news. To move it up in the sports sections and give it a bigger chunk of air time on our sports networks.
Our girls/women deserve it, and it’s the right thing to do