The Olympics: a more level playing field for women’s sports?

The Olympics: a more level playing field for women’s sports?

Many claim that the Olympics provide a more level playing field for women’s sports because events are split equally by gender, which, supposedly gives sports like women’s rugby sevens a huge opportunity for growth. However, I can confidently say that this field is perhaps not as level as one would hope. It is littered with deep ditches and gaping holes - pretty similar to the pitches I play on at the grassroots level, actually. I sound dramatic, right? Hear me out… Sports being shown on television does not necessarily equate to equal coverage. It is still up to fans to dig out these games, and whilst I would be naïve to claim the Olympics does not help women’s sports, I still cannot help but wonder – could more be done here?

Tokyo 2020

News has surfaced from Tokyo that the media have been provided with a ‘cheat sheet’ full of prompts to encourage reporters to include female athletes in their coverage. The media handbook included tips on gender equality in coverage – with strong hard-hitting facts such as “Male athletes are 67% more likely to be a lead story” and “Female athletes are 20% more likely to be spoken for by a male coach”. My initial gut reaction to this was anger, I asked myself “Why in 2021 are we needing to remind people how to do their jobs” but then, by talking out my frustrations with teammates, I answered my own question – because we are still worlds apart from men’s sport. These affirmative action style measures are a bitter pill to swallow, but perhaps, like all medicine; it is a remedy we need. I do believe this could lead to more coverage of women’s sports. But, I don’t want women’s events, such as rugby seven’s, to be considered purely on a token basis, so it is understandably a difficult one to explore. With the above action, it would seem we are on the right path; however, you just have to take a look at last week’s headlines to realise we haven’t come that far at all. In fact, we might be regressing. The Norwegian Women’s Beach Volleyball team were fined for not wearing the usual thong-like bikinis, and instead opting for shorts. Shorts which, I might add, when worn by the men’s team have no problems associated with them. Just days before, Paralympian Olivia Breen was told her sprint style shorts were too short and inappropriate. I can’t help but feel frustrated that the focus of these highly talented female athletes remains on what they are wearing as opposed to how they are preforming. If we continue to focus on these trivial details, we stand to veer significantly off course in achieving ‘equality’ in sporting coverage.

What does this mean for the Olympic Sevens?

Olympic Seven’s as a game is still in its infancy, it was only added to the Olympic events in 2016. Rugby Sevens is played at a much faster pace, with matches lasting 14 minutes. Sevens gets its name because it features teams with seven players. In the UK, the National Lottery saved the day with the GB sevens programme, offering equal pay to both the men’s and the women’s teams after players were told to find other jobs as their end of contract date drew closer. Despite sevens having a solid fan base, I do not see it spoken about as much as it could be. The quality of play is truly something special. Do not forget these athletes play on exactly the same sized pitch as they do in the Six Nations, with just under half of the players. The amount of speed and power these women require to perform is monumental, I certainly couldn’t do it. The last time I criticised a lack of coverage in the women’s rugby space, I had a barrage of individuals come for me for not recognising their hard work throughout the Six Nations campaign. Let’s get it straight from here, I am in no way dismissing the work of other individuals working in the rugby space. What I am saying, however, is that the game, in my opinion, hasn’t been given the adequate build up that it deserves by the wider sporting world.

Players leading the way

I also want to make clear that this takes nothing away from the Olympic athletes, who have been using their platforms to relentlessly promote their journeys to Tokyo 2020. With my comms brain in play, it does make me wonder how much influence sevens players have had in growing the fanbase of the game. With Team USA donning the likes of TikTok famous Ilona Maher, who starts most videos off by saying “Hey my name is Ilona Maher and I play for the USA sevens team”, its hard to argue that players have no space in the promotion landscape.
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A post shared by Ilona Maher (@ilonamaher)

In fact, recent research undertaken by Neilsen Sports suggests brands are sitting up and taking notice of female athletes and seeking to commodify their platforms via partnerships and sponsorships, which will hopefully only see rugby sevens increase. However, should it rest solely on the athletes’ shoulders to publicise and grow their own sport? These players have more than enough to focus on each day, growing their sport shouldn’t be a task which is left exclusively to them. Perhaps this will change, and we will see a flood of content and excitement from media outlets in the coming days right before kick-off, but as it stands my timeline is pretty quiet.
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A post shared by Abbie Brown (@abbiebrown13)

I honestly believe that sevens can help rugby become more of a global sport. If you think of it as a product, it has everything a sporting fan could want – plus it is easy to digest due to its short form nature. Looking at the vast array of teams involved, we are in for a great time next week. The tournament includes 12 different teams which have been divided into three pools. Last Olympics Australia narrowly came away with Gold, after defeating New Zealand 24 -17. Canada left with Bronze, whilst team GB took fourth place. This year however, it’s all to play for. I would not rule out team USA, as they have been looking strong and training hard, but so have Team GB. It’s safe to say that this tournament will be full of twists and turns, and I am hopeful that we can get more people into sevens, growing rugby as a sport on a global level, which is exactly what it deserves. Stella.

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