SA's female athletes need a real sporting chance
South Africans have chosen Caster Semenya as their favourite sportswoman for the third time in six years. At the gsport awards in Johannesburg last night, Semenya was named top athlete, as she was last year and in 2012.
The gsport finalists are chosen by a panel of judges, but the deciding vote is by public poll, and Semenya has been very much in the public eye of late. Her fellow finalists were netballer Karla Mostert, who has brought glory to South African university teams as well as playing professionally in Australia, and Olympic javelin silver-medallist Sunette Viljoen, who previously also played cricket for South Africa.
That we have these awards at all is proof of the esteem in which we hold our sportswomen, but in many ways women are still fighting for space on the fields, courts and pitches.The three biggest hurdles women in sport have to clear are cash, coverage and crowds. This unholy triumvirate exerts a three-handed lock on progress. Broadcasters say there is not enough interest in women's sport, but without media coverage, how is interest supposed to increase?
It comes down, as most things do, to money. Sponsors are needed to finance the players and the platforms on which they appear. Some companies are doing just that. Momentum's sponsorship of women's cricket has fuelled the rise of the Proteas. The media coverage they received during the recent ICC women's World Cup was unprecedented, as was the enthusiasm this generated. Grown men sobbed in front of their television sets when the team was knocked out in the semifinal.
Individually, women have broken through the male-dominated sports cordon. In athletics and tennis, equality is becoming a reality, thanks in part to the talent, charisma and efforts of participants like Semenya and the Williams sisters.
Venus Williams spearheaded a nine-year battle for equal pay that was won in 2007 when Wimbledon organisers announced that they were eliminating the difference in cash prizes awarded to men and women.
Semenya did not allow an unpleasant gender debate to break her stride, and the support she has received from South Africans proves that sporting heroism can triumph over petty sexual politics.
Less than half of 1%
But there is still resistance to women in traditionally male team sports. Despite the National Charter for Women and Sport in South Africa, which commits to the development of "a sporting culture that enables and values the full involvement of women in every aspect of sport and recreation", there are still no domestic leagues for female soccer, rugby or cricket.In the individual categories at the gsport awards, the only player representing these sports was the Proteas opening batter Laura Wolvaardt. The teenager, who scored 300 runs in her debut World Cup, was named school sports star of the year.
The absence of women soccer and rugby players in the line-up of nominees is not a reflection on the awards; it simply points to a lack of funding and attention for these sports.
This is by no means a purely South African phenomenon. A 2015 study published in the US's Sports Business Daily said that satellite channel ESPN's coverage of women's sport had remained at 2% of the total from 1999 to 2014, and that less than half of 1% of US sports sponsorship was invested in women's sports. How is this logical, asked the authors, in a country where women control approximately 75% of consumer purchases?
In the UK and Australia, more money is spent on the development of women's sport and there are professional leagues for women in cricket, rugby and football. But the country that introduced cricket to the world was one of the most resistant to the inclusion of women in its white-clad ranks.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who died this year at the age of 77, punched her way through the male ring-fencing of cricket in England. Not only was she instrumental in getting women's cricket officially recognised, she also organised the first women's match at Lord's and in 1998 finally persuaded the MCC to accept women members.
Fit and confident daughters
Heyhoe Flint was so appalled by the lack of media interest in women's sport that she became a sports journalist herself, but despite valiant efforts she remained frustrated. In one of her last interviews, she said: "The media will only take notice of women's sport if the sport has personalities to promote, but until the media takes a chance on sport, who is to know whether the personalities exist or not?"