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Carleton University swimmer Kayla Bose [Photo © Liam Harrap]

With the 2018 Winter Olympics in the final stretch, female athletes looking at the gender balance of the Canadian team might see positive signs. This year, Canada sent 103 women athletes and 123 male athletes to compete in South Korea, meaning the women make up nearly 45 per cent of the team. But that female contingent is the largest for any winter Olympics in Canadian history. The summer games in Rio represented another milestone: the Canadian team was nearly 60 per cent female, the largest proportion of females for any Canadian Olympic team.

But some athletes say women have a long way to go in sports.

Cross-country skier Maya MacIsaac-Jones says that women are at a disadvantage in her sport because of the imbalance in the number of women sent to international events.

Since 2014, MacIsaac-Jones says that Canada has not sent any female athlete to the Tour de Ski, an annual multiple-stage event based upon the idea of the Tour de France. According to MacIsaac-Jones, there have been available spots in the Tour de Ski event for Canadian women every year.

In 2017-18, Canada sent 2 men and 0 women and in 20176-17, Canada sent 4 men and 0 women. In the 2017-18 event, Canada’s Alex Harvey placed third overall in the men’s competition.

The Ottawa Curling Club is where the women’s Olympic curling team practiced prior to PyeongChang [Photo © Liam Harrap]

MacIsaac-Jones says there are often good explanations to why Canada brings more males then females to international events. In some years, the male skies may be more competitive than the female skiers. However, she feels that when female athletes are left out of those events, “it is far more challenging for our women’s team to achieve international success than it is for our men’s team.”

This year, Canada sent twelve cross-country skiers to the Olympics, four of whom are women.

Denise LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for Sports Canada, says they are “committed to ensuring an equitable sports system for all Canadians, including women and girls.”

Gender Balance in sports, in Canada

For the first time in Canadian history, there were two flag bearers at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, both figure skaters.

Canada needs to keep promoting their female athletes, according to Carleton University women and gender studies professor, Katharine Bausch. We need to continue “putting them on TV more, talking about them more, celebrating their differences.”

“Something needs to change in society more generally around thinking about what’s possible for people who identify as women,” says Bausch. “There’s got to be this larger mental shift, which sounds hard.” But she says it is entirely possible.

One of the challenging areas for female athletes is viewership.

“Canadians tend to pay more attention to male athletes than female athletes,” says MacIsaac-Jones, “particularly in sports where men and women are not on the same competitive circuit.”

Take curling, for example. The national women’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts typically gets 75 percent of the audience that the men’s national curling tournament, the Tim Hortons Brier gets. The disparities are even larger for women’s professional leagues, including the National Women’s Soccer League, the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

See below for a 360 photo of the Thursday Day League practicing at the Ottawa Curling Center. It is the oldest curling club in Canada and was established in 1851.

Hockey is an even more extreme example. Between 2012-2013, the Calgary Flames had on average approximately 18,000 attendees per games, while the Calgary Inferno, the female national hockey team, had on average 108 attendees.

The gender disparities in professional hockey are presumably extreme because of the enormous popularity of the National Hockey League.

CWHL games are attended far less than NHL games. Ottawa has no CWHL franchise.[Photo © Liam Harrap]

Cathy Bureau, president of the Goulbourn Girls Hockey Association in Stittsville, Ont., says that she used to know a lot of women hockey players and she saw some of the struggles they faced when trying to get something as simple as funding for training. She also says that “they had to get themselves to and from different venues, […] across Canada or where ever. It had to come out of their pockets,” while the boys had everything fully funded.

Cathy Bureau is the president of the Goulbourn Girls Hockey Association [Photo © Liam Harrap]

Bureau says that things have changed over time. However, she calls it baby steps. Female athletes are still underpaid. Male athletes receive more attention and funding, in comparison to female athletes around the world.

Eleven-year-old Danika Glenn plays in Bureau’s hockey association. Recently, the young hockey player was in the news for campaigning to have a trophy case installed at the Goulbourn Recreation Complex, where her team plays. At the arena, the boy’s hockey association has a trophy case, but according to Glenn, most of the girls’ hockey trophies are either in a trophy case with all kinds of other sports achievements or living in their coach’s basement.

Danika Glenn with the current trophy case at Goulbourn Recreation Centre. [Photo © Liam Harrap]

Getting a trophy case meant recognition for Glenn. Before this campaign, she says, “I felt like no one really wanted to see our trophies.”

“Everybody thinks that boys are tougher and that they can play everything way better than girls can.” Glenn wants to prove everyone wrong; she says she has a great team that supports her and amazing coaches that allow her always to play her best.

The latest update on this story came after a meeting between Glenn and Coun. Shad Qadri, of Stittsville. On Feb. 7, the city agreed to pay to build the trophy case.

Danika Glenn points to the spot for the new trophy case. [Photo © Liam Harrap]

“I don’t know how much it’s going to change over the next few years, but it is amazing that even now, it’s a battle,” says Bureau.

“I’ve been fighting for equality […] on the ice and off the ice for a long time, with coaching and with referring,” she says. “It’s always a battle especially when we want to get more female coaches, in a pretty male-dominated [sport].”

Carleton University swimmer, Kayla Bose, says that she has seen times when she thought female athletes were undervalued in the Olympics, because of their gender.

Bose explains that in the 2012 London Olympics, a Chinese swimmer named Ye Shiwen, swam faster in her final 50m split during the 400m individual medley than U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte did in his. She swam 28.93, while Lochte swam 29.10 seconds. People were very suspicious about these results. BBC Olympic presenter Clare Balding made remarks that could have been interpreted as suggesting that Ye had cheated.

“How many questions will there be, Mark,” she says to her co-presenter, Mark Foster, “about someone who can suddenly swim much faster than she has ever swam before.”

Some suggested that such an unexpected result would raise red flags about an athlete regardless of their gender. Others thought the subtext was that a female swimmer couldn’t be as fast as a top male swimmer without cheating.

However, Bose says that it’s not unheard of that female swimmers can outperform male swimmers.

Kayla Bose [Photo © Liam Harrap]

Bausch says that some people “have it in their minds that only men can do certain things, so [to them] it would be impossible that a woman could have achieved that.”

Shiwen missed the final in the same event at the 2016 Rio Games.

Female athletes are undervalued because some people believe that they are not tough enough to outperform male athletes. “They are either not tough enough, and if they are tough enough they start this sex verification process,” says Bausch. “Historically, [female athletes] who are deemed too masculine, were forced to undergo all of this testing, and it’s really unfair because they never do it to the men, but they do it to women who are too masculine.”

“People assume that if you are tough, you are not really a woman,” says Bausch. 

In 2014, Dutee Chand considered to be one of India’s fastest runners, underwent sex verification testing because of her strong performance. The testing found that her “male hormone” levels were too high and as a result, she was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Nevertheless, she was allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics, in the 100m event.

In the last few years, there have been initiatives in Canada to encourage female athletes. Dairy Farmers of Canada introduced, in 2016, the Champions Fund in alignment with their Fueling Women’s Champions initiatives. Athletes, teams, non-profit sports camps, and recreational programs have received $5,000 each.

“As long as there are barriers for women, there is still work to be done. However, the Government of Canada is proud of the achievements women have accomplished in the past,” says LeBlanc. “They are a true source of inspiration and the reason why our government and our partners must continue our efforts to close the gender gap.”

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