Level Playing Field

Level Playing Field

When I was little, I had big ambitions to become a professional soccer player and wear our red and white national jersey. I’d practice in our backyard and imagine myself running out onto the pitch in front of a sell-out crowd at the World Cup, or one day wearing my number 12 at the Olympics on home soil.

But I quit playing at an elite level at the age of 14.

One of the main reasons being, that I didn’t believe there was a future there for me.

I didn’t see others in that position, and I didn’t know how to make a living out of it. (Did I also need a full-time job?!)

But things have changed.

And I’m proud to say that we, as a society, have made significant strides over the last few decades to bring more awareness, visibility and parity to women’s sport, across all disciplines.

It was only in 2004 when Sepp Blatter (former president of FIFA for those who might not know him) said: “Let’s get women to play in different and more feminine garb than the men, in tighter shorts for example.”

I reiterate, we’ve come a long way.

The BBC recently launched #ChangeTheGame campaign is further testament to that movement and promises an exciting summer schedule full of women’s sport.

I love the sentiment and ambition of the campaign.

I love the treatment and raw emotion captured within the launch film.

I love that I see myself as an athlete reflected in these powerful images.

I love the amount of additional content being generated – documentaries, podcasts, and online videos.

That being said, what I love most of all is that it’s not a one-off.

It’s part of the BBC’s commitment to transforming sport, for the better, forever.

Simply marvellous.

But I do have a little niggle. A slight frustration.

Now this isn’t an attack on this campaign or the BBC as I know #ChangeTheGame will undoubtedly empower and inspire young athletes as well as those outside of sport; but this latest campaign has reminded me of the common narrative and language we typically defer back to regarding women’s sport.

I’m talking about highlighting gender differences in sport and making that message front and centre. Or, falling back on sexist stereotypes that ultimately play out an old narrative that we’re all already familiar with.

Besides, it’s one that we are very willing and happy to change.

Remember the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics? We were swift to call out any misogynistic or unfair reporting of athletes and their incredible achievements.

And for the most part, the media was equally quick at holding their hands up and apologising for these comments.

You might also recall top sporting figures correcting reporters on their achievements. Andy Murray superbly acknowledged that he wasn’t the first person to win two Olympic gold medals for tennis (an incredible accomplishment that’s for sure), that honour went to Venus and Serena Williams who have won four each.

I think we’re at a time when we can celebrate sport as it should be.

Inspirational. Empowering. Celebratory. Moving. Transformative. Inclusive.

(I could go on…)

In order to inspire future generations, I don’t believe we should be looking to emphasise past gender-specific injustices, or comparing one against the other, but rather we should be looking forward to what is to come.

The ambition from brands to move into this space is certainly there. However, we need to ensure the right balance is met between showcasing an inherently gender-biased competition, such as the Women’s World Cup (or Men’s World Cup), and the celebratory tone and nature of where we want sport to be.

Because no one calls themselves a female football player, a female hockey player, or a female tennis player. Just as others don’t describe themselves as a male football player, a male hockey player, or a male tennis player.

For in the end, we are all athletes.

My vision of sport is perfectly captured in Olympian Simone Biles post Gold medal winning statement: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”

Now that’s the type of inspirational message I want young children to hear.

One that may just help towards keeping their sporting dreams alive.

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