Women Are Making A Splash Both In And Outside The Gender Pool

Kevin McCallum finds that women’s sport is slowly but surely getting the recognition it so richly deserves.

In May, just before his team played Watford in the FA Cup, Pep Guardiola, the manager of Manchester City, was asked by a journalist what he thought of the prospect of his team becoming the “first-ever to win the domestic treble” of league titles: the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and the league cup in England.

The Spaniard stopped, looked at the journalist and interrupted. “Men’s,” he said.

Indeed, Arsenal Football Club’s women’s team did the domestic treble in the 1992/93 season, an incredible achievement often overlooked by a blinkered male-dominated media. It is not only football. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, BBC presenter John Inverdale put it to Andy Murray that he was the first person to win two gold medals in tennis. The British tennis star gave him short shrift: “I think Venus and Serena (Williams) have won about four each.”

Murray had done the same at the US Open, correcting a male journalist who told him Sam Querrey, to whom Murray had just lost, had become the “first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”. Murray replied that Querrey was just the first “male player” to do that.

Two small steps for man; one giant leap for women’s sport.

It will take much more than two stars calling out journalists to change the perception and attitude some mainstream media have towards women’s sport, but there is a sense that the tide is turning, that sponsors, broadcasters and media are realising the value in women’s sport. They are superstars, role models and inspirations.

SA’s female sports stars

South Africa has a history of strong women sports stars, who compete and beat the best in the world. From Elana Meyer to Penny Heyns, from Banyana Banyana to the Proteas — both cricket and netball — from Comrades winner Gerda Steyn to Kgothatso Montjane, the wheelchair tennis ace, South African women make their mark on the global stage.

Montjane, born with a congenital disorder that affected the growth of her fingers and legs, has had to fight harder than most to become an international star. In 2018, she became the first black South African woman, able-bodied and disabled, to take part in Wimbledon. She qualified for all four majors last year and this year was knocked out in the semi-finals of Wimbledon. At 33, she still gets a little starstruck that she is at the same events as the likes of the Willams sisters who inspire her as she hopes to inspire others.

“I can’t believe I am competing in the same space as them. I just never saw myself here, considering how I started in this sport. Even if I’ve never talked to them, we compete on the same stage, we share the same locker room and dining space,” says Montjane.

Having started the sport relatively late in life, back in 2005, Montjane learnt from watching Roger Federer, Serena and Venus Williams on television, writing notes, and then practising what her heroes did. That has translated into her incredible consistency of shotmaking, which has taken her to a ranking of seventh in the world.

Penny Heyns was regarded as perhaps the best breaststroker of the 20thcentury as she became the only woman to win the 100m and 200m at one Olympics, and set 14 world records. There have been lean years for South African women in the pool since the 2000 Games in Sydney, but that changed this year. In July, Tatjana Schoenmaker followed in Heyns’ wake when she became the first South African to win a medal at the World Long-Course Championships, taking silver in the 200m breaststroke in Gwangju, Korea. In August, Schoenmaker won her first World Cup gold in Tokyo.

South Africa’s netball stars also lived their dream in July when they finished fourth in the World Cup and came within a whisker of beating Australia in the semi-final. Yet, said Netball SA president Cecilia Molokwane, it was hard for some of the team to train because their “focus was on work and putting food on the table”. That may change now.

Molokwane said she had told the team before the World Cup that they would be the “group to change the face of netball. The group that was going to make the media start talking about them. The group that was going to make headlines”.

Telkom, which sponsors the local league, offered the team R1-million if they won the World Cup for the first time. The players still got to share a R1.2-million bonus pool from team sponsor Spar. But they, like the United States, like the Williams sisters, like Banyana Banyana, were changing the way women’s sport was viewed and providing inspiration for a new generation.

SuperSport has been at the forefront of providing substantial coverage for women’s sport, not through a sense of righting wrongs, but because the celebration of women’s sport gives a return in viewership and numbers. While SABC chose not to broadcast the women’s World Cup and opted for the men’s African Cup of Nations, SuperSport showed both. The women’s World Cup set new records in Britain and South Africa for television audiences.

“We don’t see this particularly as a new market. A sport like cricket, for instance, has long attracted a wealth of female viewers. Women’s netball, hockey and soccer, among others, have long been staples on SuperSport. At SuperSport, we don’t differentiate between men’s and women’s sport – we broadcast world-class sport,” said Gideon Khobane, CEO of SuperSport.

And that, as Andy Murray and Pep Guardiola might tell you, is why women’s sport deserves more respect. It is world-class and South Africans are showing they have the class to compete with the best in the world.

 

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