The fact of the matter on Canadian women in sport is this: If you are watching Canadians compete for a medal in anything, chances are you are watching Canadian women. If you and your family belt out Oh Canada (as ours does) when the Maple Leaf rises over a stadium, you are likely singing along with a Canadian woman. Canadian women own the international athletic stage these days. Full stop. They are, as my daughter might say, “crushing it”.
How did this come to be and why is it important?
In the last 20 years, the Lou Marsh Trophy for Canada’s top athlete has been awarded to a woman eight times (one of which was a joint award to figure skater Jamie Sale and her partner, David Pelletier, in 2001). If we remove those athletes, who have won for plying their trade professionally (an option not available to most female athletes) the balance tips to eight women and three men. Not only that but Clara Hughes and Hayley Wickenheiser have somehow never won the award. Moreover, the Lou Marsh Trophy has regularly and repeatedly been given to exceptional Canadian women since its inception in 1936, including three-time winner Barbara Anne Scott who won for the first time in 1945.
All of this is to say that Canada has been fertile ground for women in sport for many years. If we consider the generation of female athletes we see today, we can be confident that 15 or 20 years ago, there were parents, siblings, coaches and teammates who valued young girls expressing themselves through sport; who did not believe it was the exclusive purview of men; who made what we see on our television sets today possible. Moreover, those parents and coaches would have seen and celebrated the likes of Nancy Greene, Marylin Bell, and Marlene Streit in their formative years.
However, this is not true in every corner of our world. Nor is it true of every corner of our country. Globally, we have long recognized that the path to prosperity and freedom in many countries lies in educating and empowering girls and women. Sport plays a small but vital role in that path. In 1974, the great Billy Jean King established an organization called the Women’s Sports Foundation and in one of its publications they write, “Sport is where boys have traditionally learned about teamwork, goal-setting, the pursuit of excellence in performance and other achievement-oriented behaviours—critical skills necessary for success in the workplace. In an economic environment where the quality of our children’s lives will be dependent on two-income families, our daughters cannot be less prepared for the highly competitive workplace than our sons. It is no accident that 80 per cent of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as former “tomboys”—having played sports.”
It is for those corners of our country and our world where the experience of Canada’s great female athletes is unknown or unheard that we must continue every day, and not just today, to advocate, to demonstrate, and to celebrate women in sport and thank them for all they have done for our country and our girls since 1945 and all that they will continue to do in the future.