In 1973, Billie Jean King invited 62 other women tennis players to a meeting in London and convinced them to join her in the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). It was a first step toward male-female equality in the sport that King had championed for years.
Today, the WTA runs 52 tournaments in 33 countries; prize money in all four Grand Slams is equal for women; and men’s and women’s tennis events attract the attention of millions every year. In January at the Australian Open 2011 women’s final, an estimated 60 million people in China alone watched the performance of Li Na, a woman and the first Chinese player ever to reach a tennis Grand Slam final.
The dramatic changes that Billie Jean King helped set in motion almost four decades ago have unfortunately not been repeated in other sports. Equality be-
tween men and women on the playing field remains a cause that needs many more Kings around the world. Equal play, equal pay, equal media coverage, and equal allocation of financial resources for the development of female athletes are, still, unattained goals in many parts of the world—Latin America included.
Skeptics argue that women athletes do not attract as much public attention as men do and should therefore not be expected to reap the same support, especially money paid in top-of-the-line professional team sports. But this skepticism ignores the personal and social benefits sports can bring to men and women alike and the special contribution that women athletes play as role models to girls on and off the field.
Though they may not always be remembered, Latin America has produced some remarkable women athletes. For example, Chile’s Anita Lizana in 1937 became the first tennis player from Latin America to be ranked number one in the world. Today, Brazil’s Marta Vieira da Silva and Argentina’s Luciana Aymar have reached superstar stature beyond their national borders. Fans across the globe look forward to Marta’s next dribble and goal on the soccer field, or when Aymar plays her 301st international field hockey game for Argentina. Nevertheless, the adulation of fans does not carry with it the kind of media coverage, business sponsorships or hefty paychecks available to their male counterparts.
If one considers sports as a microcosm of Latin American societies, perhaps the lower level of support for women athletes in the region illustrates how far the region needs to go to overcome gender disparity—despite progress in other areas.
This is not unique to the Americas. Globally, even in soccer, the difference in salaries paid to top professional male and female players remains stark. According to available estimates, comparing arguably the two best soccer players in the world, Lionel Messi (a man) and Marta Vieira (a woman), Messi earns over 10 times more than Vieira.
This is staggering. It is also ironic. After the 1999 Women’s World Cup held in the U.S., the International Federation of Association Football’s (FIFA) top executive, the loquacious Joseph Blatter, said, “The future of football is feminine.” Twelve years later that “future” remains in the future for women in the game.
Progress, Icons and Engagement
While there has been progress toward gender equality in sports, it has been slow and uneven. During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, 42 percent of participants were women athletes, an all-time high. Countries that had never included women athletes in their national teams did so for the first time, Oman and the United Arab Emirates among them. Today, countries like Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia are being pressed to include women in their teams for the coming 2012 London Olympics. Active female participation in organized sports is no longer a novelty even in extreme endurance events like Ironman (Iron-person?) Triathlons.
In the U.S., the passage in 1972 of Title IX, a federal law, opened the door for high school girls and college women to increase their participation in sports activities by prohibiting sexual discrimination in educational or athletic activities and mandating school authorities to ensure that women athletes receive financial and infrastructure support equal to that offered to men.
Title IX has generated a great deal of controversy as some schools have tried to circumvent the benchmarks. Although they have alternatives to meet the federal requirements, dozens of colleges have eliminated so-called low-profile men’s teams to comply with Title IX. Angry alumni reactions—formal complaints, withdrawals of donation commitments and even a recent civil rights lawsuit filed by the soon-to-be-eliminated men’s track team at the University of Delaware—have followed.
Nevertheless, the social impact and the measurable medical and psychological effects Title IX has produced are undeniable. In a 2006 study, University of Illinois professor Robert Kaestner compared rates of obesity between U.S. women since 1970 who had been active in high school sports to those who had been inactive. He found that women who took advantage of the opportunities provided by the federal law to participate in sports at the collegiate level showed a 7 percent lower obesity rate when they reached their early 30s and 40s compared to women who didn’t participate in sports.1 One should not forget that obesity among girls is also a serious health issue in Latin America.
Betsey Stevenson, an economist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a study in 2010 that showed that 40 years after Title IX, girls’ participation in sports and athletics, especially at the high school level, was strongly correlated with achievements later in life. “[Participation in school sports] explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and some 40 percent of the rise in employment for women between the ages of 25 and 40,” the study concluded. According to Stevenson, “It is not just that people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life. While I only show this for girls, it is reasonable to believe this is true for boys as well.”2
Similar studies have not been conducted in Latin America and the Caribbean, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that women athletes are achieving success off the playing field as well. Among other notable examples, Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini went from an extraordinary career in tennis to become a fashion entrepreneur and an icon for professional women. Cecilia Tait, the three-time Olympic volleyball star, became an influential politician and congresswoman in Peru. She left her post in 2006 for personal reasons and was re-elected this year. Such women have become inspiring examples. You need only look at the number of women playing, running or competing in public parks, fields, streets, and gyms in Latin America to know that females are participating in sports and physical fitness programs at increasing levels-—probably at levels never seen before.
Nevertheless, the prospects for expanding women’s participation are hampered by the lack of state resources and by lukewarm support from the private sector. With other priorities facing countries, public funding for athletics in the region is scarce in general. But when those resources are devoted to coaching and mentoring in schools and other organizations, what does tend to trickle through the system usually goes toward men. This creates a vicious circle, since marketing dollars and corporate sponsorships usually also flow to those athletes who can command media attention. And those are, for the most part, men…
1. Evaluation Review Journal, February 2011. Excerpts
2. Well. Excerpts of article by Tara Parker-Hope. February,2010.
3. Historia del Tennis en Chile 1882-2006. Dec. 2006. Book by Mario Cavalla. Excerpts.
4. El Austral Daily and Askintuwe, a mapuche publication, April 2011. Interview, Pedro Cayuqueo. Excerpts
5. Several sources. Among them, Latinegra (2008), Ms Magazine. (2004)
Tags: Argentina, Juan C. Cappello, Sports