BIG TEAM FOR TOKYO, BUT WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?
For all the talk about the SA team’s chances in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics, a potentially alarming issue stands out. It’s almost all about the men.
Only five athletes in the 34-member national athletics team are women, equalling the smallest contingent to be selected for the Games since the 1996 showpiece in Atlanta, when only four women were included in the SA squad.
Those who qualified for Tokyo, of course, deserve their places in the team.
Wenda Nel has produced a spectacular return to form this season, Dominique Scott has cemented her place as South Africa’s most consistent athlete, Jo-Ane van Dyk did really well to qualify in the javelin, and gutsy marathon runners Gerda Steyn and Irvette van Zyl will be ready to give it everything on the road.
But we can’t ignore the reality that it is a very small team, and in terms of elite-level performance, SA’s women are still not on par with the men.
In terms of both quality and depth, there is an obvious failure somewhere along the line, and while the demographics of national teams is only one of many potential barometers, the statistics are alarming.
At the 2016 Rio Games, 13 of the 39 athletes (33%) in the South African athletics team were women, and they bagged two of the country’s four track and field medals, with Caster Semenya retaining her 800m title and Sunette Viljoen securing silver in the javelin throw final.
In Tokyo, just five years later, the women’s contingent (five of 34 athletes) consists of just 14% of the athletics team.
And with Semenya locked in a sideline battle against gender rules, they are going to struggle to challenge for the podium in her absence.
So if we accept that we’re not seeing enough progress in women’s athletics, we then have to ask why that’s the case.
Is it a lack of opportunity at junior level? Or does the answer lie in the apparent struggle to transition to senior competition?
Do we have enough good coaches, both for young girls and elite women? Do they have enough role models to keep them motivated? Do sponsors see the same marketing value in women athletes that they see in elite men?
By tackling these questions, and asking others, we can probably find the answer, but it’s a deep problem which is going to take active effort to address.
In terms of equality, South Africa is clearly not doing enough to promote and sustain women’s athletics, and a solution to this problem needs to be found.
And if we want to see more female athletes in the squad at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, the process needs to start now.