Women and Sport – Back to the drawing board again!

The Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA) Zone VI recently organised a Women and Sport Conference in Gaborone, Botswana, in an effort to re-energise programmes designed to increase participation of women and girls in sport at all levels.
This is a most encouraging development, as female role models are not coming through thick and fast as expected. From a neutral point of view, one could be forgiven for thinking that our leaders have always been and are still paying lip service to the development of sport for women and girls.
This is sad when you consider the media hype, funding and attention that is devoted to male-dominated sports events. Female sports events rarely get coverage. Sometimes it is like an afterthought, even for some brilliant media professionals who should know better, especially when it comes to providing equal coverage for male and female sports events. There is no gender equity or gender mainstreaming in the coverage of sport.
There is therefore, need for a paradigm shift across the board if participation of women and girls in sport is going to be successfully promoted. Gender-sensitive policies need to be formulated and implemented in order to address the imbalances. In this connection, the Women’s Euro 2013 football tournament held in Sweden recently was also a good eye-opener on a comparative basis. It is evident that sports leaders in other parts of the world are indeed making progress in terms of trying to bridge the gap between men and women in sport. Although there was more hype about the Men’s Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland won by the mercurial Spanish team than the women’s event won by Germany this year, it was pleasing to watch stadiums filled to capacity watching women’s football in Sweden.
Even here in Africa, women’s sport, including football, is becoming an increasingly marketable product. However, there is need to concede that marketing strategies and activities for women in Africa still lag far behind. At the recently held International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Moscow, Russia, the representation of African women was very much pathetic compared to other parts of the world.
Apart from a few Ethiopians and Kenyans who finally made it to the medals’ podium, there was really nothing in it for African women at this event.
Southern Africa was again ably represented by Amantle Montsho from Botswana, who won silver in the Women’s 400m event after being pipped to the gold by Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain.
To this end, Southern African sports leaders must be brutally honest and concede that the national sports authorities are simply not doing enough to ensure that there are African women who can effectively compete with their peers on the world stage.
Despite years of political independence and emancipation, which was hoped would translate to gender equality and equity, nothing much is happening in Southern Africa.
Yes, there are the few examples of brilliant individuals such  Penny Heyns, Natalie du Toit (RSA Swimming), Amanda Coetzer (tennis) and more recently, Geraldine Pillay, Hestrie Cloete and Caster Semenya in athletics but nothing much else.
 Other Southern African countries have one-person wonders and no concerted drives to utilise outstanding athletes to motivate droves of other women and girls to emulate the very excellent role models that are there.
This is true for Mozambique with Maria Mutola (women’s 800m), where one would be forgiven for thinking that sports authorities in that country would have by now, groomed many other talented Mozambican women and girls to take over the baton of being sporting ambassadors  for the country. The same applies to Botswana with Amantle Montsho (women’s 400m) where the hugely talented athlete has no peers from her country who can deliver world-class performances.
Zimbabwean sports authorities are also guilty of being mesmerised by the prowess of Kirsty Coventry (swimming), Cara Black (tennis) as well as Julia Sakala, Gailey Dube and Samkeliso Moyo in athletics.
Sadly, we do not seem to see any other talented youngsters coming through the ranks.
In this connection, there is need for visionary leadership. Leadership, sometimes is far from being a popularity contest but leading people where they ought to go and sometimes dragging them, kicking and screaming to do the right things, and not what is comfortable for them at that juncture.
All the noble declarations and conventions on women and sport, such as the 1995 Brighton Declaration, are not worth the paper they are written on unless dynamic leaders emerge who can drive the programmes.
This applies not only to the women but to the men as well.
They must play a critical role in facilitating the participation of women and girls in sport and physical recreation at all levels.
The benefits to Southern Africa in terms of education, health as well as uplifting the social status of women are so huge such that failure is not an option.
The sports industry and its related systems are very much poorer without women in influential positions. I am not advocating for reckless affirmative action programmes for women but I am of the opinion that sports authorities need to put their investment dollars in sport where their mouths are.
Modern sports science, in terms of the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) theory and practice, posits that it takes 8 to 10 years to develop a world-class athlete.
Southern African women have proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are extremely talented.
 However, there is need to take active steps and measures to facilitate the development of this talent so that it shines brightly for the whole world to see.
The sports authorities have nothing to lose except their stereotyped mental chains. They have everything to gain by developing and plunging greater numbers of the region’s sports women into rigorous continental and world competition.
I have no doubt in my mind that many pleasant surprises will spring from greater investment in sport for women and girls.
It is not a privilege that is extended to them by generous benefactors but it is a right which should be appropriated by the people most affected, even if it causes some degree of discomfort to some chauvinistic and old-school and old-fashioned male sports administrators.
It is up to women sports leaders now to construct their own stages and platforms, negotiate their own television and other media rights packages to ensure that their sports products are marketed and sold at the right values.
It is time for bold and decisive action!

August 2013
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