The long road: women, athletics, health and equality

Bruce Bolam, from VicHealth, on the barriers to women joining in the athletic activities that could be so beneficial to their health.

It has been almost four years since the news broke that the Australian men’s Olympic basketball team had been given business class tickets to London, while the women’s team travelled to the UK in economy.

The incident prompted widespread criticism of Basketball Australia and forced them to change their travel policy to ensure it was gender equitable.

We have come a long way in women’s sport since then.

By the end of the London Olympics, 20 of the 35 medals for Australia were won by women (including the Opals who won bronze).

We’ve witnessed the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, seen Australia’s most historic footrace - the Stawell Gift - offer equal prize money for men and women, and we’ve just recently witnessed the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League cricket take place in our sporting grounds and on our televisions.

Last year, women’s AFL matches were screened live on free-to-air TV for the first time and we’re currently charging towards the establishment of an Australian Rules women’s football league next year.

It’s an exciting time for women’s sport.

But the road is long.

Last week, the Federal Sports Minister, Sussan Ley, along with Australian Sports Commission chairman, John Wylie, wrote to the top 30 funded sporting organisations in Australia demanding gender equitable travel policies if they wanted any hope of a slice of the Government’s $134 million funding pie.

In her letter, Ms Ley said: “We can think of no defensible reason why male and female athletes should travel in different classes or stay in different standard accommodation.”

The crackdown prompted Football Federation Australia to declare the Matildas would receive business class travel and more luxurious accommodation if they qualify for the World Cup, held once every four years. But they won’t receive improved travel conditions for other international tournaments.

Professional Footballers Australia’s player relations executive, Kathyrn Gill, who is also a current Matilda’s player, last week said it was “simply unacceptable” that female athletes were still being denied the same conditions as men.

It is indeed unacceptable. What boggles the mind is that in 2016, nearly four years on from the Boomers and the Opals controversy, we’re still having this conversation.

Similarly, it’s disappointing that clubs have to be practically threatened with ineligibility for future funding in a bid to try and enforce equity.

It seems a bit of a no-brainer. Female elite athletes should be afforded the same travel arrangements as male elite athletes. End of story.

Anything less than equal arrangements sends the wrong message to our current sportswomen.

It also sends a terrible message to young women and girls, and aspiring female athletes, about the value of our most highly rated sportswomen in Australia.

Having female athletes often paid considerably less, afforded fewer opportunities than their male counterparts and given sub-par treatment doesn’t exactly serve as inspiration for young women in Australia to strive for their own sporting success.

While that’s disappointing for many reasons, it’s also extremely concerning from a health perspective.

Research indicates more than two-thirds of adult Australian females are classified as being sedentary or having low levels of exercise.

Over a third of adult women are sports spectators at events, however for a variety of reasons women participate less in sport or recreational clubs than men.

We know that the costs associated with inactivity are incredibly high, including the impact to the economy, cost to employer and effect on our physical and mental wellbeing.

We also know that participating in physical activity can help to prevent chronic disease, increase health and fitness, reduce risks of mortality, increases social networks and boosts mental health and wellbeing.

VicHealth has created our Changing the Game initiative to try and increase the number of women and girls who are physically active, while raising the profile of women’s sport in the media and championing the important role women play in sports’ leadership and management.

Through the program, we’ve funded six sporting codes to develop innovative sports programs more appealing to women and girls who are inactive or somewhat inactive or who don’t normally participate in traditional offerings provided through clubs and competitions.

We also partnered with the Melbourne Stars and Melbourne Renegades as part of WBBL in a bid to raise the profile of women’s cricket and encourage participation.

Cricket Australia figures indicate the number of women and girls playing club cricket surged by more than 50 per cent last season to 3658 participants. It’s estimated that figure has increased by about another 50 per cent so far this season, thanks to strong interest following the WBBL.

Our female athletes are a pretty impressive bunch so it’s no wonder they’re inspiring women and girls to take up sport. And they’ve managed their amazing achievements despite the fact that women’s sport is languishing behind men’s in terms of participation, media coverage, pay and prize money and conditions.

Imagine what they could achieve if they were treated the same as their male counterparts?

The time for equality is now.

Our current female athletes deserve it and the health of future generations needs it.

Dr Bruce Bolam

Dr Bruce Bolam is Executive Manager, Programs Group at VicHealth.

Website: https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/
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