‘The only time female athletes get any media attention is during the Olympics’

By Kate Roberts

I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to take part in extracurricular activities. I participated not because I was particularly good at them but because I found them fun. It was only much later, towards the beginning of my university days that I started to focus my efforts on the triathlon, in the hope of representing South Africa at the Olympic Games.

At school I wasn’t aware of the many health benefits of exercise, there were so many other reasons why I loved sport. I adored the feeling of being part of a team, the comradeship and the sense of belonging I got from working towards the same goal. I felt energised when I exercised regularly and got to meet like-minded people and made everlasting friendships. It also made me think more positively about life and I was able to keep fit doing something I really enjoyed. Sport taught me many other skills that have become vital parts of my everyday life today such as commitment, perseverance, resilience, discipline and a true sense of joy and satisfaction when hard work pays off.

Unfortunately in today’s world, few girls feel the same way I do about sport. The reasons for this stretch far and wide and range from girls suggesting that sweating isn’t cool or feminine, to the negative experience of physical education in schools. But ultimately I just don’t think that there are enough role models for our girls to admire and look up to. I can’t do anything about the former but I can try to help change the opinions of those who don’t feel there are enough sporting role models for young girls. In fact there are many sportswomen to look up to today but sadly they are not given the same level of coverage as their male counterparts.

On average, women only receive a very small percentage, about 5%, of the total sponsorship money spent, and this is no surprise to me when you look at the lack of media attention they receive. This is one of the many reasons I feel it is important the media try and showcase the many amazing female sporting role models we have in South Africa and hopefully educate young girls that sport is about being fit and healthy and not about being thin and hungry. And that regardless of their age, size or ability, there is a sport out there for everyone. Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, for example, is like any other young woman, except that she happens to be exceptionally good at cycling. Ashleigh has been one of the breakthrough stars during the past two years on the UCI circuit and yet most of our mainstream media still continue to ignore her achievements and women’s sport in general.

We ignore the many positive stories of remarkable women such as Karin Prinsloo (swimming), Rene Kalmer (marathon running), Marsha Marescia (hockey), Siyoli Waters (squash), Amanda Dlamini (soccer) and Bridgitte Hartley (canoeing) and continue to bombard our youngsters with photoshopped images of models that are false, unrealistic and completely unattainable. Respected magazines print every fad diet that crosses their path without addressing the more important issue of how simple it can be to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You don’t need to deprive yourself of all treats, it’s just about having them in moderation and exercising on a regular basis.

For a nation of sport lovers it is ironic that we only seem to offer substantial coverage to our male athletes and yet wonder why our young girls are shying away from physical activity at depressing and unparalleled levels. One would think that as more women advance in the workplace and become empowered members of society these trends would get better and relate to all avenues including sport. But we’re not seeing much improvement. The only time female athletes get any media attention is every four years, for two weeks, during the Olympic Games.

It shouldn’t be about one gender being better than the other but rather about fairness and equality. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan and supporter of our mainstream sports such as rugby, cricket and soccer and my intention is not to change the culture of these sports in South Africa, but it would be fantastic for women to be recognised for their hard work, sacrifice and dedication they’ve delivered day in and day out.

We need to respect our female athletes. Right now we are in danger of creating a generation of young girls that feel they have no place in the world of sport.

Kate Roberts is a double Olympian triathlete.

Image – AFP