The Evolution of Women In Sport

In Ancient times and in the Victorian era, women were discouraged from watching and participating in physical activity. This view was held because a woman was supposed to be passive, obedient and attractive to her male friends. Traditionally men have dominated sport. In fact, it was often argued that sport was harmful to women. This attitude has changed dramatically especially since the 1960s when the women's liberation movement strongly demanded equality for women.

Australia in the modern age is a nation extremely interested in sport. Sport unites us as people as we play and discuss sporting events together. Gradually women and children have added their numbers to the 'sporting religion' of Australia. In 1987, the Women and Sportunit was developed to increase participation and community awareness of the importance of physical activity to females.

Sport holds a significant place in our society, as does the media which is responsible for communicating the importance of sport in our lives. Just as sport is critical to the media, the media is critically important to sport. Although women have made significant contributions to Australian sport, female athletes have yet to achieve equality with men in the media. In terms of coverage a few years ago, women athletes were almost invisible. In a report titled Empowering Women In Sports, it was found that in '1993 only 5 per cent of televised sports news covered women's sports'. This was virtually the same percentage as in 1989. The report's findings also mentioned that in the print media, a study of four major newspapers found that fewer than 5 per cent of all sports stories were devoted to women only. Today, although sports media coverage still favours men, there is increasing attention being paid to women in sport. Television coverage of the Olympic Games has increased respect for female athletes and brought them into the limelight. Women's sporting performances have improved as a result of more competition and improved media attention.

Consistent media coverage can assist in providing a sport with profile, positive role models, increased spectator appeal and lucrative sponsorship opportunities. Female sport lacks the appeal of male sporting events and as a result of this, suffers sponsorship problems. As the media is a strong form of communication to the public, the way a sport or athlete is portrayed by the media can also impact on the credibility of that sport or sporting personality. With that in mind, we need to question what images of female athletes are commonly presented to readers and viewers. In a recent survey titled An Illusory Image: A Report on the Media Coverage and Portrayal of Women's Sport in Australia 1996, it highlighted that 'although the nation's sportswomen are playing faster, harder and more professionally than ever, and have a proven international record, they will struggle for consistent, long-term coverage'.

Statistics compiled by the Australian Sports Commission indicate that 'women have only had access to an average of 25 per cent of events and that they have comprised an average of 23 per cent of Australian teams'. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta though, 36 per cent of athletes were women. More sports and events for women were added, including soccer and softball. This is a positive indication that despite men's attitude towards women in the past, conditions and outlooks could slowly be improving.

The Empowering Women In Sports report offered a few strategies that can be adopted to bring about a change in attitude towards women in sports and gender equity. Some of these strategies include: supporting and encouraging female sporting events; challenging the myths and stereotypes which surround women, as stereotypes unchallenged are stereotypes accepted. Another strategy involves a push for gender equality issues. Gender equality in sport applies to two basic areas including participation opportunities, and sporting funding.

With all these points in mind, we need to create a climate in which sports and fitness are for everyone to enjoy and where everyone's abilities are tested and respected. As women develop greater interest in sport, their own attitude to their bodies has changed and women's sporting performances have improved as a result of more competition. With the support from the media and respect from the public, female athletes will finally get the same recognition as their male counterparts.

- Annemarie Failla