“Because you’re a girl”: Elite women’s sport in Canberra

09 March 2016

This article originally appeared in HerCanberra online.

Last week I got to hang out with some of my heroes as the Canberra Capitals came together to mark the end of the WNBL season.

I’ve been following that team since it was formed thirty years ago and it really is a great Canberra institution. It’s also a bit of a case study in how elite women’s sport – and elite women athletes – have had to adapt and evolve in an environment where being at the top doesn’t guarantee you much.

Former Cap and Australian Opal Lucille Bailie gave a great speech for outgoing coach Carrie Graf. She was, as she said, paying tribute not just to a coach but also a mentor, visionary, advocate, mum and friend – someone with an amazing legacy already and plenty left to give. Not that it all came easy. Lucille recounted a defining moment when Carrie was seven years old at primary school and when, despite being the best cricketer of her age, she wasn’t allowed to play in the school team.

“Why?” Carrie asked. “Because you’re a girl” was the answer. And from that setback began the amazing career of someone who would take on so many barriers women face in sport – particularly at the elite level. The saying Carrie has become renowned for among Caps players is “fire in your belly, ice in your veins”. Her determination is legendary. But her leadership, care and understanding of young players – still growing up, often juggling a part‑time job with basketball – are some of the qualities those in the Caps family will miss the most. And there are numerous examples.

Jess Bibby has just retired as one of the most successful and loved Caps ever. She has played the most WNBL games of any player in the history of the competition, yet I remember buying coffee from her at the Spence Grocer (albeit a bit nervous about my brush with fame). Abby Bishop made the courageous decision in 2013 to adopt her daughter Zala while in the prime of her career and has paid tribute to the club and her teammates in supporting the decision, embracing Zala and helping her pull it all off so well. Lucille actually mentioned about a dozen kids who’ve become central to the fabric of the club as their mums pursue elite careers.

One of the other things said about Carrie was how important equality is to her – the principle of everyone getting a fair go. It’s a tribute to her and many others at the Capitals that they’ve been able to create such a strong and supportive team culture – something we as a government are pleased to continue to support. But I wonder what the Caps’ experience tells us about where women’s sport is at in our community? About how we value the elite and how this translates to the juniors? About our expectations on women athletes compared to men? About boys and girls?

As we approach International Women’s Day for 2016 I think it’s a good time to think about these things.

Equality has got to be the starting point for sport in our community. We should never have an eleven year old missing out because of their gender. On the contrary, we should be encouraging people of every age, ability, body type, gender and culture to get involved in sport and physical activity.

This is perhaps the single highest priority for me as ACT Sports Minister and there’s no doubt Canberra does well on sports participation with about 70 per cent of us involved in sport or physical activity. On the downside, the federal government has just released research showing a real gap between the participation of girls and boys in sport and physical exercise – particularly between the ages of 15 and 17. The research suggests that girls are only about half as active as boys in these critical years of physical development and that if the community fails to turn these habits around women face major growth in chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and colon cancer, in addition to obesity and related injuries.

The aspirations of girls and women and the expectations of our society are so important in shaping choices around participation in sport. That’s why in seeking to foster a healthy culture we need a diverse and successful group of women role models.

I’ve been lucky to have the Caps to look up to over the years. With Canberra United in the W-League we have another top tier women’s team with a growing profile. We also get good access to national women’s teams like the Southern Stars who played at Manuka Oval last month. But none attract the coverage, profile or financial backing of their male counterparts. That’s why for those of us who see equality as the ultimate goal, there’s still some progress to be made.

There’s a role for decision makers at high levels of sport, business and government in shaping the culture around these teams, because the message we send to our kids and the community – particularly through elite sport – is among our most important responsibilities.