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The spotlight and narrative have both always been on men in professional sport, for obvious reasons. But are those reasons valid? Arthur Bwanakawa explores…

The initial thought is the clear and tangible difference in treatment and recognition between the two genders. Exclusion and discrimination, together with overbearing masculine toxicity.

The gender disparity dates back literally to the beginning of time, where the role of a woman was defined by the ruling man of the household, the ruling man in the community, and then the ruling man of the people of a tribe or clan or even a nation. Women had no rights and this was “normal” in the primitive years.

But what is fascinating is that the earliest recording of an event in women’s sport dates back to the 3rd century in Greece where Spartan charioteer Euryleonis won the two-horse chariot races in that year’s Olympic games. A bronze statue was erected in Sparta in her honour; the year was 368 BCE.

One that would terrorise the early Father’s, or rather patriarchs of civilization, would be some 1 400 years later when in 1768, a French woman named Madame Bunel played a highly publicised tennis match against Englishmen Mr Tomkins.

After three sets, she defeated him 2–1, subsequently winning again in a rematch 11 days later. Talk about getting a taste of your own medicine and acting like it didn’t happen for the boastful men of their time?!

The impact women have in the modernisation of professional sports and the world has left this special group of people to make a mark on humanity in a priceless way. The winds of change have begun to blow.

The voices of those forgotten, discriminated against, and looked down upon for being female, have now risen up and taken a strong stance over the malice believed to be caused by the men of the new world.

For this article, justice will be done for the incredible feats and milestones reached by Women in Sport globally in 2023 so far.

The audacity to put the spotlight on those considered to be less entertaining than men and taken less seriously for that matter, speaks to the acknowledgement of growing change in women’s sport.

One of the many milestones has already been reached on the global sport calendar of 2023 by women in professional sports.

African champions Banyana Banyana have accomplished something for the ages. Competing in just their second FIFA Women’s World Cup finals in Australia and New Zealand, South Africa made history on the global stage by advancing out of the group stages of the tournament.

No South African team—men’s or women’s—has advanced to the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup.

Beating Italy 3-2 in their last group match, who are ranked 16th in the world, is a massive statement from the WAFCON champions, considering that South Africa is ranked 54th.

The World Cup in Australia and New Zealand was a World Cup of surprises. Despite a sloppy start from Banyana Banyana—losing to Sweden in the opening game and drawing against Argentina—Tembi Kgatlana took the armband from the injured Refiloe Jane and was sensational for South Africa, literally the anchor in the storm. In addition, the ever-present Jermaine Seopesenwe and Linda Motlhalo were on song. But the heroine game in, game out was Hildah Magaia.

Magaia’s rise to stardom over the years and being able to make Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis rely on her has been nothing short of incredible.

Heading to the Round of 16 in the World Cup was akin to winning the final itself. Bear in mind how disruptive the team’s send-off was in South Africa when the entire squad failed to show up for the warm-up match against Botswana. All of this happening before the start of the World Cup and all thanks to a divided and unruly SAFA. According to FIFA rules, the technical staff and players must be paid at least $30 000 each for their appearance at a World Cup—something which looked unlikely to happen.

The protest by the national team was motivated by this maladministration and lack of transparency from SAFA. Promises were made that were not honoured. This virus called corruption and maladministration in professional sports needs to be eradicated from within professional sports. However, this calamity will be clouded by the impressive and record-breaking progression by Banyana Banyana into the Round of 16.

Sadly, Banyana went down 2-0 to the Netherlands in the Round of 16, but they leave the tournament with their heads held high.

2023 has been called ‘The Year of Her’. Women all over the world have regained their voices, but the decisionmakers in multibillion-dollar sports companies are slow to transformation and put on the masquerade of welcoming change. Some argue whether or not the packaging of women’s sports itself is not saleable. Nevertheless, women enterprises and businesses strategically positioned in support of women in sport beg to differ. The Rugby World Cup Sevens for example had a massive economic boost for the City of Cape Town that hosted both the men’s and women’s World Cup simultaneously. An estimated R2.6 billion was added to the tourism sector, with more than 100 000 people in attendance for the three-day event in the Mother City. These numbers in the women’s space can only be achieved if corporate South Africa mobilises the existing and emerging local businesses.

Staying with Cape Town, it is fast becoming a sport destination and one of the top 10 African cities according to Forbes and All Africa News.

The existing markets suggest a boom in business opportunities that will serve the needs of the community. Issues of crime, violence, theft, and a lack of visible security are contributing factors identified by the stakeholders and shareholders as well.

In the context of African black women, there is no doubt the greatest injustice has been done towards them.

When considering the struggle of black African people, the inhumane conditions they lived in and the devastation of imperialism, women have been at the wrong end of the stick. So, the human virtues of temperance, courage, and kindness, especially in sports, lessen the burdens and paves a path for healing.

Therefore, the fatal blows of history continue to linger in the psyche of mankind, for the women she uses that chaos as fuel to stun the world she lives in, which tells her she can’t be anything.

Early this year, Cape Town welcomed the cricketing world for the ICC Women’s T20 Cricket World Cup. This was ground-breaking, because in the 14 years since inception, the tournament had never been held on African soil. The power of bringing a huge international tournament to African soil always brings healing. When a black girl sits in the stands in Cape Town, cheering on the Proteas, it creates a feeling connected to a memory that will last forever. It is these points of contact that will draw and inspire a generation for women to excel on the global stage of professional sports.

South Africa’s women’s cricket landscape has seen an upward trajectory, with more and more younger girls and those of colour, too, joining the sport. Cape Town also has a rich history, with cricket being one of the popular and dominant forces. So, when the Proteas reached the semi-final of the World Cup, there was nothing strong enough to stop the wind in their sails. Failing to advance to the final is just a stepping stone to building the powerhouse that South African women’s sports needs to be on par with the global powerhouses of the world.

The challenge comes in when, after the glitz and glamour of being the first African nation to host the Cricket World Cup has died down, what becomes of the potency that led to the awarding of the venue rights? Or even the systems in place that made the operation of the Netball World Cup effective?

The aftermath of major tournaments determines the survival and growth of sport. The Provincial and National Sports Ministry must be directly involved with the foot soldiers on the ground to maintain an organic atmosphere that will attract investors and sponsors to the table.

Cape Town hosted the Netball World Cup for at least 12 days. The Spar Proteas did not manage to get a semi-final spot on home soil as the trophy arrived to Africa for the first time in 60 years. What will be of the netball communities in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu, just to name a few? In the next four years, could Africa be a candidate again to host the World Cup or is the euphoria of being the first African nation to host the tournament good enough?

There is an appetite for innovation and revolution in sports. Daring to do the impossible would mean giving the women of all sporting codes an unprecedented and undying support that would make the men worry. Let the laws and rules of competition be the same. Leadership opportunities must be available to better understand and merge the transition between male-dominated spaces to male and female together in the decision making process.

Brazil’s women’s longest serving footballer, Marta da Silva, made an earth-shattering statement in a post-match press conference recently. This after Brazil were knocked out of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. In what was her final World Cup for the South Americans, Marta insisted that the game of football in the women’s sphere has to keep growing for those in the slums and townships of third world countries who cannot afford a TV or radio to watch or listen to the commentator’s narration of a women’s football game. Marta went on to say that if they cannot see others who look like them, then they won’t aspire to also work as hard as possible to be where some of us find ourselves today, on the grandest stage of all the World Cups.

Arthur Bwanakawa is the Leadership Magazine Sports Reporter.