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Takeaways from 6th World Conference on Women and Sport (yes, obesity is actually a global problem)

June 16, 2014 – 1:46 PM

By Laura Pappano

During the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport one speaker joked that the formal program was what happened between coffee breaks.

The observation was spot on: women sport leaders from 100 countries used coffee breaks as jam sessions. They crowded onto benches, gathered at tall tables, and clustered at the edges of a grand piano to urgently explain challenges, plights, accomplishments amid the tinkling of teacups. Could a U.S. non-profit work in Zambia? How did Venezuela make access to sport in schools a national right?

Sport, as sessions and coffee breaks made clear, can be a lever against forced early marriage, lack of access to education, ill health, and poverty. It is training for leadership and safety. Sport may look like play, but it is serious business.

A few final takeaways:

—   Obesity is a challenge around the globe. In Indonesia, the women’s sport association PERWOSI (for women not involved in competitive sport) has encouraged “mass aerobics,” where 5,000 gather in public spaces to exercise. In the countryside where athletic facilities and equipment are scarce they model a rigorous form of traditional dance to stimulate interest in physical exercise (think Zumba).Click to see a few seconds of a dance demo. IMG_0029

— In Tonga, where obesity and physical inactivity cause health problems like diabetes and hypertension, the International Netball Federation leads a project encouraging women aged 15-45 to gather three times a week for exercise and play.

— Among Bedouin girls and women in Israel, who typically drop out of school at age 12 to start families and may have four children by 18, physical activity is non-existent. For them, as for many women in developing societies, a life of cooking over open fires and gas spurs poor health and higher rates of respiratory problems.

Nurit Werchow, self-described “sport entrepreneur” and member of the Israel Volleyball Association and Mifalot Education and Society Enterprises, helped ti trained 16 Bedouin women to coach “catchball” or “netball” (but not the same netball as  the basketball-like game) a simplified version of volleyball. “After four months, we ended up with a team,” she says, showing a photo of women so excited at having experienced athletics for the first time that they used whatever was available to play: Two women standing on chairs in a community center building holding a rope to serve as a net for play. It was infectious.

Which brings us to a key point: Sport is a political, social, and economic tool. It is also a vehicle for spreading good health – and joy.



Mariam Al Omaira talks barriers and strides for UAE women’s sports

June 14, 2014 – 3:13 AM


By Laura Pappano

If you are a girl in the United Arab Emirates the opportunity to play a sport, to compete, to be part of team faces barriers – but the situation is improving, says Mariam Al Omaira of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi. Omaira, 28, spoke with me at the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport in Helsinki about her own experiences and the changes and challenges for female athletes in the UAE.


FGN: How did you get interested in playing sports?

 MAO: In schools we do have physical education. I started with football (soccer). We used to play with my cousins who are mostly boys and create competitions behind my grandfather’s house.


FGN: Aren’t girls and boys barred from playing together in the UAE?

 MAO: Because it was with our cousins it was fine. Cousins and neighbors are allowed. If it were in school or a more public setting that is a problem.


FGN:  Were there many sports opportunities for you?

 MAO:  We did have [sports] clubs during that time, but they all focused on getting the boys involved rather than the girls. Girls were meant to study and get married and stay at home. I started playing football, and I did gymnastics and then I wanted to do ice hockey. I attended an American International School and that is where my passion really grew.


FGN: But your parents didn’t want you to play…?

 MAO:  It was very difficult for me to convince them. They said, “no.” In 10th grade, I just went to the tryouts without telling them. I made the soccer team. I told them, ‘I am going to be playing sports. Take away anything you want” [as punishment]. They said, “Fine you can play.” Throughout high school I played soccer, volleyball, and basketball.


FGN: And in college?

 MAO:  I moved to university – AUS [American University of Sharjah]  — and Sharjah is one of the more conservative emirates. I really wanted to play soccer. They told us that if you get the approval of the students and the faculty in the university you could play. I wrote a petition and went through the student center and got most of my friends and the faculty to sign on. That’s what it took to get a soccer team [for women] at the university.


 FGN: And how was play in the university?

 MAO: In 2005, we had the first national team for women. We played a friendly game with them and after they asked me to join. I went back home and asked my parents and they said, “No, What will we tell our family?”


FGN: The Ladies Sports Academy was started in 2010 and there is under construction a large facility for women to gather and play sports, to attend seminars about training and nutrition. Why is this needed?

 MAO: We do have public sports parks, but it is very uncommon or unlikely for us [women] to go out and participate or randomly go on for a pick up game.  There are no university degrees in sport science.


FGN: You have said that barriers to sport are not so much religious as cultural, as families not wanting or finding it proper for girls to play sports.

 MAO:  It is not religious. As long as you are covered up, you are good to participate. Culture interferes a lot with development.  In the past three years, it is changing. Even my family is changing and they are starting to accept it. I would love for us to get to the point where the family becomes more understanding that sports can become a career path for their daughters. Whether they engage in sports in being in administration or as referees or volunteers, it would allow us to participate in more international events. If they accept that it is allowed, we can develop sports in a proper way.


World Conference on Women and Sport: Message from Helsinki is about access and leadership

June 13, 2014 – 10:51 AM

By Laura Pappano

The 6th IWG World Conference on Women and Sport opened yesterday in Helsinki, Finland 20 years after the first gathering in 1994 in Brighton, England produced a declaration calling on governments and sports organizations to work for gender equity.

The conference message “Lead the Change, Be the Change” is a reminder that while there’s been progress, this is slow work.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (gold medal in fencing at the 1976 Olympics), reminded some 800 attendees from about 100 countries, that women could first compete at the Olympics in 1900, but getting women into IOC leadership, however, “took about 80 more years.”

The dearth of women in sports governance – a theme four years ago in Sydney as well — remains a challenge. Bach observed that just 4 of the 15 members of the IOC executive board are women.

One has only to look at the Sydney Scoreboard – a global index of women’s sport leadership by country — to see that in many countries women comprise less than 25% of sport leadership (in many it is much less than that). This reveals how much work remains to give women an equal voice in shaping sport policy.

Why does this even matter?

Sports are an increasingly visible barometer of female wellbeing. When women can’t play, they typically lack power over their bodies and lives. They lack access to education, political and economic opportunities. They may not be physically safe.

Sports equity, in other words, might well be as useful as the Genuine Progress Indicator as a measure of a nation’s stability and success.

This idea is not new, but the message from opening ceremony speakers and in smaller sessions  in Helsinki suggests a broader understanding of sport as a tool for equity and women’s rights.

Bach, for example, reported that the IOC has pressed the Saudi Arabian government to extend sports opportunities to girls in school.

“It is not enough to send women to the [Olympic] Games if girls are denied opportunities to participate in sports everyday,” he said.

The recognition that athletics is not a top-down game suggests those at the highest levels must do more than tout medals and tell motivational stories. Much sport development has been a quest for the next star.

The message from Helsinki is about the value of sports for all — regardless of age, physical or mental status, culture, religion or where in the world you live – and the responsibility not to lead from above, but from down on the field.

International Olympic Committee head Bach at the opening of the World Conference on Women in Sport in Helsinki yesterday

International Olympic Committee head Bach at the opening of the World Conference on Women in Sport in Helsinki yesterday





Sport practice is more than prep for play; it’s nation building!

April 2, 2014 – 3:45 PM

By Mariah Philips

It is another dark morning, 4:30 a.m., when I force my feet out of bed and onto the cold hardwood floor. It is time for softball practice and, before that, the pre-practice heating pad that will loosen up my shoulder so I can throw and bat.

It takes discipline to wake up in the dark, to rise despite aches and pains, to put in two hours of physical work before a day of classes. But it is a learned discipline that comes from years of training cultivated through my participation in sports.  The willingness to rise, to push, to work, has shaped my values, (discipline being one of them) and equipped me for the rigors of the adult world.

Such lessons are not mine alone. But for girls in some parts of the world, access to athletics is fraught with obstacles.

In her March policy brief, “Women, Sports, and Development: Does it Pay to Let Girls Play?” author Barbara Kotschwar, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argues that skills gained through athletics offers women in developing countries tools to advance their own and their countries’ economic well-being.

The problem, observes Kotschwar, is that girls in developing nations face barriers, including “the persistence of strictly enforced gender roles and legal and cultural restrictions on movement.”

In India, although wrestler Sonika Kaliraman and tennis player Sania Mirza are raising the profile of female athletes, few girls play sports because they lack family support and it has not been part of the cultural tradition. “Because women have not commonly participated in sports in the past, girls face criticism for wanting to do so.”

In other countries, they lack access to equipment, training, facilities or, as Diana Barakzai, captaining of the Afghani women’s cricket team, observes, women “are victims of unacceptable rules that prevented them from leaving the house.”

If sports can make stronger leaders and foster economic independence and stability among individuals – as Kotschwar’s analysis of research argues – then how can that not breed economic independence and stability for developing nations? Doesn’t it just make good sense, she points out, to consider athletic opportunities as a piece of nation-building?

Difficult as it is to roll out of bed at 4:30 a.m., more young women need that chance.

It IS March Madness: Still a Shadow Championship

March 18, 2014 – 5:42 PM

By Laura Pappano

Get ready: For the next few weeks college basketball will be everywhere you turn. Unfortunately, few of the games that will be playing non-stop on screens will feature women’s teams.

Yes, women are playing — just not where you will notice them.

Every year, I get excited and whoop up the crowd like a women’s basketball mascot — Fill out your brackets!! Did you see that game last night on ESPN2??!! — but I am aware that as great as the women’s play is (and it’s fantastic), the klieg light of attention given the men’s game leaves this brilliant show of female ball talent in the shadows.

I worry that the NCAA is only making things worse.

It is one thing for media empires to vastly out cover the men’s tournament and another for the NCAA to do it. Go to the jazzed up NCAA website and you quickly notice that after years of looking like a dowdy, but institutionally-sober event, the men’s bracket now rivals the glitz of the ESPN bracket challenge. The new website makes abundantly clear that the men’s championship is the main event.

Yes, you can go to the NCAA site and land on the women’s bracket (notice the “print bracket” button). If you look at the bottom of the page you see a new feature — a “play now” icon. Click it and — even though you are on the women’s bracket — it delivers you to an edgy page and invites you ESPN-style to fill out and play and invite others to join — the men’s bracket.

As I said, you can still “print bracket” if you dare to be interested in the women’s bracket challenge.

In this era, the click rules. Whoever can deliver you quicker with better design wins the competition for attention. Why make it so difficult to hold an office bracket challenge for the women’s tourney?

On the NCAA site, the endless electronic loops that navigate you over and over again to all things Men’s March Madness (unless you specifically click “Women’s Tournament”)  reveals all we need to know about the NCAA’s view of gender equity.

Women’s basketball may be one of the most successful and compelling women’s sports in America. The timing and overlap of the men’s and women’s tournament has long been a subject for debate. But the lopsided web favoritism for the men’s championship is unnecessary, annoying, and demeaning.

And, as I said. It tells you all you need to know.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 6.29.48 PM

If co-ed youth sport is a Pandora’s Box, then Game On

January 15, 2014 – 10:55 AM

By Laura Pappano

Much of the modern life has evolved — and at breakneck pace — but too many adults in positions of power continue to enforce a maddeningly old-fashioned mindset when it comes to young female athletes and co-ed play.

I was recently contacted by a mom whose third grade daughter – eight years old – was first allowed to join a community youth basketball team with boys and then tossed off the roster. May I repeat: This is third grade.

The reasoning?  The organization’s board chair, this mom wrote, “informed me that the majority of the board members were of the opinion that girls should not be allowed to play with boys. He stated that although this is just 3rd grade, allowing them to play now opens a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of issues and makes it more difficult for them to disallow it in the future.”

Obviously, Pandora’s Box was flung opened a long time ago. You can also bet that all the young Pandoras growing up today have no intentions of shutting it.

Earlier this week in Pennsylvania, U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew W. Brann ruled that the Line Mountain School District could not bar 12-year-old Angie Beattie from the middle school wrestling team. Beattie, who has wrestled since third grade – may we pause to recognize that starting early gives girls a chance to develop skills to compete successfully? – earned a 5-3 record last season in club wrestling.

The frustrating thing? The school district’s arguments against Beattie sound like the arguments against 3rd grade co-ed basketball – and like the arguments that have been struck down in previous court cases. School officials argued that letting girls wrestle boys presented psychological, physical, and moral risks.

School officials back in 1996 reached for the same argument when Tiffany Adams of Wichita, Kansas wanted to wrestle on the Valley Center High School team. The court ruled that while student safety was, indeed, an important goal that Tiffany was no more in need of protection than any other qualified student who wanted to wrestle.

The ruling includes a message that school officials in Line Mountain (and board members barring a girl from 3rd grade basketball) might well heed. The notion of “protecting” qualified girls but not boys, the court said, “suggests the very sort of well meaning but overly paternalistic attitude about females which the Supreme Court has viewed with such concern.”

The most striking part of the court ruling, though, was the finding that barring Tiffany from the team denied her the ability to develop her skills as a wrestler and this had caused her “irreparable harm” and violated her constitutional rights. Wow.

It’s a point school officials and recreation board chairs ought to think about next time they drag out the tired claim that they are “protecting” girls by excluding them.

Better to let them know that Pandora has her uniform on – and she’s ready to play.

Amnesia Bowl: FSU and Winston Catch a Pass, Send Troubling Message on Campus Sexual Violence

December 30, 2013 – 5:00 AM

By Megan Wood

 Bowl season is underway and, with it, a surfeit of TV football coverage leading up to the BCS Championship game on Jan. 6 between #1 ranked Florida State and #2 Auburn.

 In it’s giddiness over the nation’s #1 ranking, Florida State – and the Football Industrial Complex – have conveniently ignored what should be more than a footnote in this Cinderella story — namely that nearly a year ago QB Jameis Winston was accused of raping a classmate.

 The Heisman Trophy – which Mr. Winston won by a wide margin – is a high honor to be bestowed upon a player who “best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” No doubt he is an excellent athlete, but how much was “integrity” on the minds of those who gave him a booming standing ovation at the celebratory dinner?

 Maybe people just forgot about the rape accusation?

 Or perhaps they were eager to be satisfied with a slapdash investigation with clear missteps including victim intimidation (common problem in rape cases) so they could get back to celebrating Mr. Winston’s impressive athleticism – and the upcoming national championship?

 Should we really be done talking about this? I’m not so sure.

 Let’s first get a key fact straight: Mr. Winston was NOT exonerated as FSU Head Coach Jimbo Fisher and supporters alike have mistakenly claimed. To exonerate means to “to prove that someone is not guilty of a crime.” There’s no proof of his innocence—there simply wasn’t enough evidence available, according to State Attorney Willie Meggs, to charge him with rape. Be sure to watch the press conference of Meggs delivering his decision. His laughter and carefree demeanor are disturbing.

 The investigation was flawed from the start. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg highlights the unusual delay in police action and calls the investigation “botched.”

 Justice served? Think again.

 Just weeks after the state decided against charging Mr. Winston, he won the Heisman Trophy, read the Top 10 on David Letterman, and is prepping for the championship game. There’s buzz about whether he might play baseball at FSU and be the best two-sport player that ever lived.

 It’s no wonder big-time college sports like football have an image problem. Not surprisingly, we also have a problem on college campuses with sexual violence. Study by the National Institutes of Justice suggests that over the course of a college career one-fifth to one-quarter of college women can expect to be victims of sexual assault.

 Couple those numbers with the fact that campuses have lousy follow-up and response and the real message of Mr. Winston’s case is not that FSU is going to the dance, but that women on that campus – and elsewhere – are being counted out.

 Wake up, America. We have a problem! Idolizing athletes and breezing over their sexual crimes sends a troubling public message to women that charges don’t stick to stars.

Sharing the Hardwood: Mixed Sex Ball Plans Excitement and Equity

December 22, 2013 – 10:07 AM


By Mariah Philips

Professional sports have long been segregated by sex, so what happens when men and women play on the same team? In a high-profile sport like professional basketball? We are about to find out.

The Mixed Gender Basketball Association, MGBA, Inc., has a mission of integrating both men and women on the court. Exhibition game is Jan. 24 in West Orange, NJ. I asked Paul King, National Director of Operations, about their plan to create an alternative co-gendered league.


FGN: Why is it important to start a co-gendered professional sports league?

PK:  Sports and entertainment are historically one of the greatest portals for justice, forgiveness, and change. It has been proven that integrating the game by allowing the gifted and talented of all races and gender to perform at the highest level has enhanced sports. Greatness can be found in anyone and anywhere.  By including talent, the game becomes more perfect.  If you love something, you want to see it reach its ultimate potential. By including women, we believe this is the next progression of the game of basketball.


FGN: How big do you expect this to get? Will it catch on at the ESPN-like level?

PK: We are confident our league will reach the major sports level. All networks look for new content that will increase viewership. Our league will bring the spectator looking for the fundamentals (commonly found in the female game) as well as the flash and excitement (commonly found in the male game) together allowing major networks like ESPN to gain viewers and increase ratings.


FGN: Since it seems so far there is a predominantly male turnout, how will you reach more women?

PK: After our tryouts in NJ, word of mouth has piqued interest of female players resulting in an increase in female turnout. This will be seen in the NJ exhibition games as well as the NY tryouts.  Additionally, we believe the 2014 graduating class and professional overseas players will bring a larger turnout for our summer season.


FGN: How can the concept of “equal pay, equal play” more broadly pervade society?

PK: The idea of “equal pay for equal play” will take hold once companies realize workers will be more productive with a equal pay model.  We will be the proving ground for this model in sports, and with our success, it will defuse into more sectors of society.


FGN: How will this league help men abandon the shame attached with being shown up by women?

PK: Our men and women players are professionals and competitors. Competitors lose shame as they began to realize that the person they are playing against is a formidable opponent.   In practice, women show up the men at times in front of cameras,  spectators, potential investors and team buyers.  The men are not afraid of being shown up by a “woman” because they respect them as players.


FGN: How do you think this will influence the perception of women in sports?

PK: As women have success in our league, the public doubt of women being able to play basketball at a high level will fade.  It also will allow marketers to create new avenues of advertisement.  We believe some sports will change their stance on women playing because of moral or financial convictions.


FGN: Do you foresee it spreading to other sports as well?

PK: Yes, co-ed sports are popping up all over the country on an amateur/recreational level.  I do not think our league will cause this change alone, but it will ignite the change that has started at the recreational level. Our league is proud to take the lead on a professional level.


FGN: What is your target demographic, and how will you sustain the league?

PK: Our audience consists of basketball fans of the Millennial generation.  We do not believe mixed gender basketball is a gimmick but the next progression of sports. We are building the company with that long-term view by exploring foreign markets and mixed gender youth camps in the states and abroad.  We believe the next generation will see mixed gender basketball as common as my children see an African-American President. For them it is not an accomplishment but the norm.


FGN: How will the game look different than what we have come to understand as “the men’s game” and the “the women’s game”?

PK: Our approach will emphasize the flash and acrobatic play of the men’s game and purity of the women’s jump shot and style of play.  Our approach spotlights interesting line-up changes (3 men 2 women quarters, 3 women and 2 men quarters), 4-point shots and a dramatic 2-minute surprise. Coaches will be scratching their heads as they plan for this unique and fast-paced game. We will restore professionalism in sports where men and women can excel equally on the hardwood.

Prize money problem in squash: Women’s purses still petite

October 18, 2013 – 3:28 PM

Tennis may have long ago recognized that unequal prize money sends a troubling message (and is just wrong), but that other racquet sport — squash — persists in offering different purses based on sex. Check out this new post from Squash Site Carte Blanche and, just for comparison, take a tour through FGN blogger Sarah Odell’s 2009  Q&A with Squash pro Suzie Pierrepont. How long must this go on?


False fret: No proof female HS X-country runners can’t go .62 more

October 10, 2013 – 8:59 AM

By Vanessa Wilkins

“Go the extra mile — it’s never crowded,” so the saying goes. But what about an extra .62 of a mile?

For thousands of girls on high school cross country teams, racing to the finish means running a course 1,000 meters shorter than their male counterparts.  In 2012, ESPN reported that ten states — Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Mississippi – have a course for females that is 4K (2.48 miles), while male cross country runners cover 5K (3.1 miles)

In the past year, two of those states –Texas and Nebraska — have given distance equity a chance by tacking on another 1,000 meters for female runners.

Why do others keep the girl’s race shorter?

Some worry fewer girls will join cross country teams if the race is longer. Even Olympic marathoner and running celebrity Kara Goucher sympathizes with “the reasons that some people don’t want to see a jump to a full 5K,” and those who “fear the farther distance would discourage girls from running.”

It’s a popular argument, but it simply hasn’t turned out to be the case in states that extended the race distance for girls. In 2008, for example, Connecticut added 1,000 meters to the girl’s course – and participation actually increased, from 2,630 in 2007 to 2,691, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s participation statistics database.

What’s more, in states where an equal race distance has been in place for five years or more — Ohio, California, and New Jersey, for example — differences in boys’ and girls’ participation rates have remained steady, at about 15-30% more for boys. That, by the way, is the same as in states with shorter race distances for female runners (the exception being Minnesota, where girls’ participation outpaces boys’ by nearly 20%).

 What is really at play here: Antiquated notions about women’s athletic capabilities. Goucher doesn’t take a direct stance against an increase in race distance for girls, but her sympathetic “understanding” perpetrates the myth that girls are afraid of extra running, feeding the fire of sexist ideology. Having this voiced by a running role model only spurs girls to question their own capability to compete at the same distance as boys.

Boys’ times do tend to be quicker. But that is not what this is about. The question is whether girls are capable of covering the extra distance (may I remind you that it’s a tad over half a mile?)

When one considers that, historically speaking, female runners have not been allowed or encouraged to train on par with male athletes it begins to look like it’s time to level the playing field – or lengthen the race course.

How else can we expect to develop a new generation of female runners to compete with the best on an international stage? There may be some catching up to do, but I bet the extra 1,000 meters will only make the race course more crowded with ambitious girls.