Dame Valerie Adams, Sophie Pascoe, and Julia Ratcliffe (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Too many girls quit sport. Will this breathe fresh life into future Olympians?

The government announced a $10m strategy yesterday to boost women and girls in sport. Madeleine Chapman wonders if the nice sentiment will turn into action.

When I was seven, and eight, and nine years old, I did athletics at my local club. Every Wednesday there would be club meets at the park literally behind my house for young athletes to compete and try to beat their personal bests in each event. I hated these meets. Not because I was bad at athletics, in fact I was very good at shot put and discus, and quite good at long jump. Most kids in my age group had a few events they were good at and would only compete when they were on. I hated these meets because my mum forced me to compete in every event, even the ones I clearly sucked at. So every Wednesday (and most Saturdays when there were interclub meets) I’d look forward to the field events and dread the track events where I’d inevitably come last or close to it.

There were two other girls in my age group who entered every event. One was a superstar who won all the track events and battled me in the throws. The other came close to last in everything.

I could never understand how that second girl could keep showing up every week (even coming to the optional Monday trainings) despite never moving out of the bottom third in our age group. But I loved her for it because when we found ourselves in the same sprint heat, I knew I wouldn’t be the only one lagging behind.

When we got too old for amateur athletics and went on to different colleges, I didn’t see that second girl around much. Then a few years ago I happened to see her name on Instagram and clicked onto her profile to see what she’d been up to. She had just won a gold medal at the Under 23 Rowing World Champs.

I was amazed but pretty quickly realised it made sense. She was a born competitor, going to every training, every meet, and always putting in more work than everyone else. She just didn’t find her outlet until college. If it weren’t for a series of opportunities at school level, I would have remembered her as the only girl I could beat in the running events at Wellington Athletics Champs. Instead, she’s now one of the most impressive athletes I’ve encountered in sport.

It was athletes like her that seemed to be on everyone’s minds this morning as Sport and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launched a government strategy to increase support and improve the rate and quality of participation for women in sport.

“A change this big – this important – will take a collective effort,” said Robertson, in announcing a $10m investment in strategy initiatives over the next three years. “The focus is on three priority areas: leadership, participation, and value and visibility.

An old photo of Robertson and Ardern because I forgot to take one at the launch (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Robertson spoke about the need for more diversity in leadership, in management, and on boards. He acknowledged that women and girls are not an homogenous group. “We need to ensure that the programmes we devise recognise the different barriers, the different challenges and the different opportunities that groups in our communities have.”

He presented a 2016 Cambridge University study about coverage of athletes in the media and commonly used words. For men it was words like “mastermind”, “strong”, dominate”, “win”. And for women, “unmarried”, “married”, “participate”, “pregnant”. He joked, or half joked, that this was a message for all the media in the room. In doing so Robertson highlighted a kink in the otherwise admirable strategy: the media. Changing the make-up of sporting management and boards throughout the country is long overdue – David White, CEO of NZ Cricket was there to share the positive changes they’d made in increasing women cricket directors from 10 to 50 in recent months – but if the same doesn’t happen in the media, no one will know.

The strategy includes a “media audit” and tracking progress of sportswomen visibility in social media and traditional media. With the decision-makers in New Zealand media being overwhelmingly male, the results of the first audit will be both interesting and, I fear, grim.

White added that one of the most important drivers of girls participating in sports is having heroes to look up to, which is why Kane Williamson and Suzie Bates now receive equal promotion from the governing body. Because ultimately, the strategy is aiming to increase participation at all levels. Elite athletes are important and always need more support, but Robertson and team are just wanting girls to play, full stop.

There’s a mindset that if you’re a girl who plays sport and you’re a bit useless (everyone’s a bit useless at some things), you won’t be a girl who plays sport for long. And this continues right through into adulthood. The same barrier doesn’t seem to exist for men. Visit any indoor netball gym on any night of the week and you’ll see what I mean. But when youth sport is predominantly boys, and girls are made to either play at their level, be embarrassed, or leave, it’s easy to see why girls aren’t flocking to the fields. My fellow slow athletics buddy sticking with sport, albeit a different code, is simply the exception that proves the rule.

Cathy Freeman: Badass. The first female athlete I remember seeing on TV (Credit: Billy Stickland /Allsport)

When numbers are high enough, girls can play against themselves, and have their own range of abilities. In other words, numbers are needed so that girls, like boys now, can be a bit useless and not worry about it. Not everyone can be an Olympian but everyone would benefit from playing a bit of sport.

So it’s all about visibility, and getting the word out there that women play sport, women are good at sport, and women play sport for a living. I didn’t start playing sport as a kid because I saw there was a local club and wanted to join. I started because I watched the 2000 Olympics and thought Cathy Freeman looked badass in her running suit. Had I known that 90% of the women athletes at those Olympic Games weren’t being paid a full salary to be athletes, I might have had a different mindset. But again, this is not something the national government can control, as both Ardern and Robertson readily admitted. “[Pay equity] is an aspiration we have,” Ardern said. “We’re focused on the ares of pay equity where we do have some control.”

“There is a distance to go,” added Robertson. “We do need to keep pushing and cajoling but quite clearly the government doesn’t run those individual sporting organisations…it’s up to the codes to be champions for that change.”

Some codes are doing just that. The Football Ferns have pay equity, the White Ferns are getting more and more full contracts, and more changes are coming. But we’re still not even close when the most successful sports team in the country can’t even offer merchandise to their fans. Yes that’s right, I’m talking about Black Ferns jerseys again. And Ardern agrees.

“We should be able to have the most basic things like merchandise for our sports teams, both female and male, equally available. We’re talking about a world champion team and one which has a huge following.”

I’m hopeful about this strategy. Like most government strategies it’s vague and feels more sentimental than practical. But sentiment is a start and sentiment often leads to action. Hopefully one of those actions will be New Zealand Rugby and Adidas making Black Ferns jerseys available for purchase.


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