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Amateur sportsWomen, Sport and Horse Sense

Posted: Friday, June 1, 2012 | 12:05 PM

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Jockey Patrick Husbands puts Woodbine Oaks favourite Dixie Strike through her paces at Woodbine Racetrack on Thursday. (Michael Burns/Canadian Press) Jockey Patrick Husbands puts Woodbine Oaks favourite Dixie Strike through her paces at Woodbine Racetrack on Thursday. (Michael Burns/Canadian Press)

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Jennifer Heil, the Bobbie Rosenfeld winner as Canada's female athlete of the year for 2011, drew the post positions for Sunday's $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, the most prestigious horse race for three-year-old fillies in the country (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4:30 p.m. ET).

 

It was a perfect fit.

Jennifer Heil, the Bobbie Rosenfeld winner as Canada's female athlete of the year for 2011, drawing the post positions for Sunday's $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, the most prestigious horse race for three-year-old fillies in the country (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4:30 p.m. ET).

It was prudent that it should happen this way.

Heil is a woman who has accomplished so much in sport. She's won Olympic gold and silver medals, been a four-time world champion in freestyle skiing and, as an advocate, has raised more than $700,000 for the organization known as Because I am a Girl, operated by Plan Canada.

The Woodbine Oaks features the best of the female race horses in Canada. Dixie Strike, the half-sister of last year's Queen's Plate winner, Inglorious, is the early-line favourite and is likely to be the star of the show. Horse sport is the one athletic endeavour where the girls compete against the boys on an equal basis at the highest level.

It made sense that Heil, in her remarks before drawing the lots, alluded to the continuing challenges that females are facing in sport generally. 

"We're all the same," she said. "We all have big dreams. 

"The only thing that's missing is opportunity."

300-heil-111221.jpgThose words and the circumstances of Heil's appearance at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack prompted me to think of what is happening with women and sport at the present. 

There is a controversy brewing over WhileTheMenWatch Hockey Night, the alternative broadcast of hockey playoffs being streamed on CBCSports.ca. The show has drawn much criticism, much of it has to do with the way women are portrayed as they relate to the games men play. One female journalist I spoke with was particularly offended. 

"We fought so long and hard to be taken seriously," she said. "This is a throwback."

Heil, who had checked out WhileTheMenWatch Hockey Night, added a spin to the conversation that gave it some context.

"I don't want to comment on the content of the broadcast," she said. "But sport needs to find new and better ways to speak to women.

"That means not only the technical aspects of games and statistics, but also the stories. I'm as big a fan of sport as anyone, but what I read in the sports pages and see on the traditional sportscasts doesn't capture my attention consistently."

Perhaps it's because, more often than not, women aren't the subject matter of the sports media.

On another front, that being the continuing resistance of Saudi Arabia to send a delegation which includes women to the London Olympics, Heil was reflective.  

"Women and girls ability to access their rights including their right to an education and to participate in sport is not new," she figured. "There is a lot of headway being made including the commitment of Qatar and Brunei to send female competitors as part of their 2012 Olympic team. 

"I hope that the IOC [International Olympic Committee] will continue to stress this issue and make the 2016 Games the first Olympic Games with the full inclusion of women."

Women have made so many gains with regard to sport. But why have they had to fight so hard? It's only logical that accessibility to athletics and the way sport is portrayed in the media should be something that is gender equal. The fact of the matter is that sport isn't there yet and so the struggle continues.

Heil, by the way, has never been to a thoroughbred race. But as she drew the lots for the fillies and the running of the 57th edition of the Woodbine Oaks, she was fully aware of why she was there.

For someone who has always believed that women should have opportunity in sport, Heil understood that Dixie Strike and the other aspiring Canadian fillies have as much chance to win the Queen's Plate as the best colts in the country do.

It just makes horse sense.

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