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Women in sport: Great strides have been made, but it's far from a level playing field

When it comes to gender equity in sport, we may be on the right path, but Olympic champion athletes tell Scott Russell there is no shortage of obstacles: many young women drop out of sports too early; there's a stigma that strong, muscular and sporty women are not 'feminine'; and women are under-represented in sports leadership roles.

It's a watershed time for women both on and off the field of play

Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith, shown in this February 2018 file photo, is just one of many women in sports leadership roles in Canada. (File/The Canadian Press)

This coming weekend, as we continue to prepare for the broadcast of Road to the Olympic Games, it strikes me how much things have changed.

Co-hosting the show with me will be the immensely talented Andi Petrillo. She understands more about sport and has a better grasp on how to deliver it than the majority of people I know.

In Vancouver, Brenda Irving, a pioneering female in sports broadcasting who followed in the footsteps of Helen Hutchinson, and became the first women to appear as a regular rink-side reporter on Hockey Night in Canada, will handle sideline duties for the men's rugby sevens tournament.

Brenda has in the past been a mainstay on CFL football telecasts and a play caller at several Olympics. Again, she's the first woman in Canada to perform those duties for many of the sports she's covered.

Jacqueline Doorey will be the on-site reporter for the bobsleigh and skeleton world championships in Whistler, B.C., and Signa Butler, who is the long-standing sports host on CBC News Network, will call the play-by-play of freestyle skiing.

In addition, former Canadian international Andrea Burk will be the studio analyst for our men's rugby coverage; Olympic medallist Helen Upperton has proven to be a popular commentating voice for bobsleigh telecasts and former racer Sarah Reid joins the crew to describe skeleton competition.

The senior producer of the show this weekend will be Karen Sebesta, who is one of the first women to spearhead Olympic coverage of any kind in the country.

When I started in this business more than 30 years ago, there were almost no women who appeared in front of the camera as sports hosts, reporters, or analysts, and fewer still who worked behind the scenes. Terry Leibel and Diana McDonald of TSN as well as Sue Prestedge of CBC painstakingly paved the way. I can recall only rarely interviewing a woman in my role as the supper hour sportscaster at CBC Charlottetown.

Men got all the attention; that's just the way things were.

'We're not there yet'

Reflecting on this, I can recall a conversation I had with four sports analysts two years ago on the occasion of International Women's Day.

They are all women, all Olympic champions, and each of them is the parent of two children. All four are members of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and each member of the group is still involved in sport at the both the grassroots and high-performance levels.

Catriona Le May Doan won two gold medals in speed skating at the Olympics and is now a fixture on the Canada Games Council, an ambassador with Special Olympics Canada, a member of the board at Winsport and the senior director of community engagement and marketing with Sport Calgary which connects more than 400 sport organizations in that city.

"We need to introduce sport to families and young girls and make them aware of the opportunities there are for them," Le May Doan said. "We need to erase the stigma which says just because women are strong, muscular, and sporty, they're not necessarily feminine.

Canada's Catriona Le May Doan in action at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Games. (File/The Canadian Press)

"It's been partially overcome but we're not there yet."

Beckie Scott won the first Olympic gold medal in the history of Canadian cross-country skiing at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake. But the title didn't come easily. Originally the bronze medallist, Scott went through a two-year battle which exposed the two Russian skiers who finished ahead of her as dopers. She has since gone on to represent Canada on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and now presides over the athlete's council of the World Anti-Doping Agency, (WADA).

Representation levels leave 'room for improvement'

She is also the CEO of Spirit North which connects, empowers, and inspires indigenous youth through the sport of cross country skiing in 35 communities across Alberta, B.C., and Manitoba.

Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott displays her gold medal she was awarded at a ceremony in Vancouver in June of 2004. (File/The Canadian Press)

"Only 25 per cent of IOC members are women," Scott noted. "There is always a ways to go for women in sport. Sport leaders and administrators at the highest levels need more representation from women. There's a lot of room for improvement."

While Canada has made great strides with regard to sport leadership, the same is not true globally. The sport minister in Canada, Kirsty Duncan, the head of Own the Podium, Anne Merklinger, the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Karen O'Neill; and the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Trisha Smith, are starting to redress the issue of sport governance which has been dominated by men in the past.

But Jenn Heil, a gold medallist in freestyle skiing at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, who does humanitarian work with the international organization Because I am a Girl, believes too many young women are dropping out of sport too early. The mother of two pre-teen boys, Danik and Mikko, she also feels kids in general aren't getting enough exposure to sport.

"We need to make the experience relevant to girls and right now we're falling behind in that regard. We have to get people, both boys and girls, prepared to participate. We are way behind in physical literacy in this country and that's a big problem," Heil said.

Sport teaches life lessons

"I know first-hand that sport teaches the importance of taking victory and defeat in stride, of developing resiliency and grit and learning how to be a good teammate. These are the lessons that I want for my two young boys. My only hope is that they experience the same joy in taking part as I have and are inspired to participate throughout their lives."

Canada's Jennifer Heil performs a jump during the women's moguls at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. (The Canadian Press)

Kerrin Lee-Gartner who is is the only Canadian to win Olympic gold in downhill skiing, which she did in Albertville in 1992, is on the board of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. She places part of the responsibility for achieving greater status in Canadian sport on women themselves.

"We need to, as women, celebrate what we are capable of," she said. "We have won as many gold medals as Canadian men have but maybe that's not the point. We can do things that men can't do. Sometimes for men being competitive is seen as a normal part of life whereas competitiveness in young girls is frowned upon. You need to be competitive in order to succeed in life.

"Women, I believe, need to foster a greater competitive spirit."

While impressive strides have been made in the arena of women in sport, we aren't there yet. There is not yet gender equity on the Olympic stage. Women cannot earn as substantial a living as their male counterparts do in the realm of professional sport. Very few high-performance coaches are women. The media's coverage of women's sporting activities pales by comparison to what men have traditionally garnered.

Beyond that, and often overlooked, is an alarming trend which sees sport play a less important role in the normal, everyday, life of all children and girls in particular. Health, physical education, and sport are no longer part of core curriculum in most Canadian schools and many observers believe that reality will ultimately affect their chances of becoming well balanced adults.

'A place of joy, belonging, and wellness'

"I'm keenly aware of the vital link between physical and mental health and I know the pressures that young women and girls are up against and how an outlet like sport can be such a saviour," Scott said.

"My hope for our daughter, Brynn, is not that she ends up being a competitive athlete, but rather that she can always look to sport as a place of joy, belonging, and wellness."

Le May Doan is of the same opinion. While her 14-year-old daughter Greta is heavily involved in competitive wrestling, field hockey, ringette, and track and field, it's not the championships won or trophies collected that matter most, but something less tangible.

"I've seen through sport how she has developed friendships and worked through personality conflicts as well as learned how to deal with the stress of competition," Le May Doan said.

"She is becoming aware of the ultimate reward which is the enjoyment of sport and the personal challenge it presents while building confidence as a young woman. She is realizing that sport can be a big part of her lifestyle through adulthood."

Canada's Kerrin Lee-Gartner shows off her gold medal in downhill skiing during the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France. (File/Getty Images)

Lee-Gartner and her husband Max, himself a high-performance coach, have two adult daughters, Riana, who has gone on to coach skiing at a high level while the other, Stephanie, is currently the captain of the alpine team at the NCAA's Montana State University. According to her, young women shouldn't have sport forced on them but instead be afforded the chance to understand what it can contribute to their life's experience.

"When our girls were little we wanted them to explore the vast world of sport and discover their own interests and passions," she concluded. "To reap the vast rewards that sport offers, to learn the valuable life lessons discovered only on the field of play, kids have to love it…everything about it."

It is a watershed time for women both on and off the field of play and it continues to be a landscape which is far from level on so many fronts.

Still, as Andi prepares to take her place at the centre of the studio stage and bring it all together on International Women's Day, I'm struck by the notion that we are most assuredly headed in the right direction.

One other word comes to mind as we celebrate all the potential there is for women in sport in this country: Impressive.