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.