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Less than a year before the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics and over one month after the final match of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, BC, I would like to share and focus my reflections on the Women’s World Cup, mostly emphasizing the social psychology and sociological milieu around the match as it was extensively covered by all media.
“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” ― Maya Angelou
In the past, I had the privilege of being present at multiple global sporting events around the world in many capacities, but I had never attended an event as a spectator until the final match between USA and Japan on Sunday, July 5 at BC Place Stadium. Women’s sport is very close to my heart as I had the privilege of managing my daughter’s junior and collegiate tennis career for almost ten years. Nevertheless, I was very excited to find myself in a new role as a part of the overwhelmingly American crowd of 53,341. On that day, a golden haze from wildfires blanketed the Province of British Columbia and Vancouver, BC, perhaps due to the 16-year US winning drought at the Women’s World Cup! However, during the 90 minutes of playing time and finishing strong with a winning score of 5-2, the US team extinguished the flames within the boundaries of the football pitch substituting golden smog with flashy golden confetti, a golden trophy, and gold medals around their necks at the award ceremony.
This summer has seen North America pleasantly packed with global sporting events. First we had the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, then the Pan-American and Parapan-American Games in Toronto. In between, there were the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles, and coming in late September, the City of Richmond will be hosting the UCI Cycling Road Championships. One would wonder what these events have in common… The answer is relatively simple. In all of these events, female athletes play either the main role or a shared role as competitors. I am very cautious with the usage of the term “equal participation” as we hear some critics voicing their opinions. During and after the Women’s World Cup some complaints were raised about the artificial turf. Others complained that the opposing teams were staying in the same hotel, and that offensive comments about player’s appearances had been made. There were also comments about paltry financial rewards for women athletes as compared to the Men’s World Cup. But on the day of the final in the packed-to-the-brim BC Place, no one was thinking about these shortcomings.
One of the leading advocates of sport for girls and women is the current President of the IOC, Thomas Bach. The founder of the Modern Olympic Movement, French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, initially opposed competitive sports for girls and women, by stating in 1896: “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks,” but later changed his opinion. Since then, gender equality in sports has come a long way, including UNESCO recognizing sports and physical activity as a human right in 1978. FIFA is adding a tremendous boost in promotion of the sport among females before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France with its program “Live Your Goals” by aiming to increase the number of girls and women playing football worldwide from 30 to 45 million. At UCI’s events’ (World Championships/World Cups) individual prize money at its competitions is equal between men and women. UCI is even experimenting with co-ed cycling competitions while also investing significantly in televising women’s cycling to promote it worldwide. The New York Road Runners’ the organizer of the New York City Marathon is in this pack of prize equalizers and is supported unconditionally by all fifty thousand fellow-participants. Obviously, the sport of tennis with the US Open’s equal prize money for men and women trail blazed as a pioneer in this regard just to name a few.
On Sunday morning, July 5, I found myself in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Vancouver, BC, which is still enjoying the post-Olympic legacy in every possible aspect. The entire city was besieged by football lovers, mostly females accompanied by their friends and families. At my hotel’s breakfast, I noticed that there was a vivid difference between the would-be-spectators. The first group came to Vancouver to indulge themselves in luxury hotels with an exquisite breakfast while chatting via their e-devices. Their body language suggested that cost was not an object. The second group went for a run before breakfast either with their parents (mostly fathers), partners or just by themselves. They probably didn’t want to lose a day of practice or this was their way of celebrating this very special day. The third group, and unfortunately there was a significant number of them, were current players who were injured moving on crutches with ankles or knees in braces or casts. The last group contained individuals, families, and groups of former football players who came to rejuvenate their passion for sport. Again in most cases, they all wore red-white-and-blue jerseys or T-shirts. It was a very impressive and empowering view on the streets and stadium.
I invited two men who love football and sport, and who were extremely excited to be a part of this event, to accompany me. On our way from the Vancouver World Trade Center to the match venue, we were trying to absorb and prepare as much as possible for the match. Two blocks away from BC Place, we noticed a very interesting event in the Andy Livingstone Park saturated with many small football pitches. As we later learned from the organizers, it was the final leg of the Vancouver International Soccer Festival, where co-ed teams were competing against each other. We spent a couple of hours watching the matches and talking with players and organizers who were extremely proud and happy to share their story with us. I must admit that the view of seeing female and male footballers playing on the same team was very impressive and heartwarming. After the matches they were hanging out together, and talking in harmony about upcoming games in the tournament. With 11 players, football undoubtedly has a tremendous potential to set perfectly inclusive competitions for all genders.
After leaving the co-ed tournament, while walking the last two blocks towards the BC Place, I noticed that the stadium is adjacent to Rogers Arena, the home of the NHL Vancouver Canucks, which explains the final score of 5-2: both teams started to score goals such as in hockey. The location must have been contagious to the players’ desire to score!
About one hour before the first kick, somehow I realized that losing this match for the US team was not an option. With the overwhelming number of red-white-and-blue spectators, mostly young girls and their parents, the expected outcome was extremely clear. Sporadically you could see the flags of Japan, but it was like looking at small islands in the Pacific Ocean. The noise from the drums and the cheers were just beyond imagination. As a newcomer, I learned my lessons the hard way as well. After loud celebrations of each goal from the US team, I lost my voice for a few days, forgetting that when you cheer for your team along with over fifty thousand other fans it is very difficult to assess your own voice’s contribution!
As mentioned before, two gentlemen accompanied me, and we sat in a section with Japanese officials and sponsors, also males with plenty of “Mr. T” lookalikes. Before the match, I asked the Japanese officials to take a photo with me, and then we wished each other good luck and started to watch the game. I must admit that my match neighbors from Japan took each lost goal with full dignity and their attitude was seamless from the outside. It was nice to share the match experience with them, and it was a good prognosis before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. We all were passionately drawn into this amazing spectacle full of drama and emotion. During the 15-minute break, we were able to learn about the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour from one of the sponsors, which we had not previously been aware of.
Why was this event so special to me? This Women’s World Cup has been a stage of magnificence, free of brutal fouls, and nail-biting soccer: the best of the beautiful game you can wish for as an enthusiast. It has also been an opportunity for me to observe where we are on the question of the sport’s global development regarding the level playing field and international gender politics. In my evening post-match intellectual revisit, I realized that I was not watching 22 females kicking a ball; instead I was watching 22 athletes who wanted to win the match and trophy of their dreams for their teams and countries. Not even for a moment did I think about gender equality. I was just deeply sucked into the match. What a fantastic sporting spectacle it was! Perhaps these athletes intangibly pointed out the direction of the future development of global sporting events.
In 2004 during the Paralympic Games in Athens, I had the opportunity to interview the President of the International Paralympic Committee, Sir Philip Craven, who told me then that the Paralympic Games are a great opportunity to exhibit the individual character of athletes with disabilities. Since then we have seen a steady reverse course for full inclusion of the Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Female athletes from all over the world earned a well-deserved place in global sports through their passion and dedication, but the beautiful game might be an avenue for a different and new type of social if not global inclusion and equality for sport “she-roes.” The number 11 can be a new lucky number for all genders to delight and thrill the world to an even greater degree than it has already been presented in Canada!
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Photographs are the author's own work