By Delilah Kealy Roberts
The terms ‘women’s football,’ ‘women’s athletics, and ‘women’s — or sometimes ladies’ tennis,’ assume that there’s something unusual, not normal about a woman picking up a racket or running onto the pitch (we never hear it referred to as ‘men’s football,’ after all). As with many aspects of society, this highlights that the world of sport has historically assumed a male default. Women in sport have long stood by the side lines, waiting for their moment to come into play.
In recent years however, women have worked tirelessly to change this perception and uproot the prejudices they have likely faced throughout their entire sporting career. In 2019 the funding was finally starting to reflect the talent of women in the sporting world while media coverage and public interest was beginning to peak.
We saw undeniable evidence of this during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup when crowds gathered across the country to cheer on England’s Lionesses against the unstoppable United States Women’s National Soccer Team. Interest undeniably rocketed, largely due to long-awaited media coverage. Google search trends around the term women’s football (soccer) saw an unprecedented spike during June 2019, proving that when given the airtime, the public are keen to engage with and to support women in sports.
The world of women’s sport is, like the rest of the industry, currently undergoing a crisis. With Covid-19 bringing sport to a shuddering standstill this year, the momentum that was growing around women in sport is now in danger of falling flat. What’s more, while men’s sport is looking to get back on track as soon as possible, women’s sport is facing a lengthier lockdown.
Commenting on Brazil withdrawing its hosting bid for the Women’s World Cup in 2023, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson said, “we can’t just rush to get men’s sport back and not think about women’s sport. There has to be a balance and diversity, otherwise some of the strides women have made could be lost.” Additionally, Kelly Smith, a major trailblazer in women’s football in the U.K. argued that the women’s game had been “pushed aside” by an early end to the season.
Luckily, there are plenty of inspiring female sports stars who have taken it upon themselves to keep the momentum going. Unapologetically demanding our attention, these women have been raking in trophies, speaking up about important issues and inspiring fans everywhere. Needless to say, the most influential women in sport aren’t going anywhere. Here are the ones to watch in post-lockdown women’s sport:
Allyson Felix – Track and Field
Allyson Felix is the only American track and field sprinter to compete in the 100 metres, the 200 metres and the 400 metres. In 2019 Allyson Felix sent shockwaves around the world when she secured her twelfth World Championships gold medal in the Doha World Athletics Championships, surpassing Usain Bolt’s world record. She didn’t stop there; she won a thirteenth on the final day of the championships. She did all this after giving birth to her daughter in November 2018 and taking on her sponsors over maternity rights with one even planning to pay her 70 percent less than before she’d had her child.
Naomi Osaka – Tennis
At only 22, Osaka is already an international tennis grand slam champion and has been named by Forbes as the highest-paid female athlete ever. Anyone who beats Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open is sure to get our attention, and Osaka achieved this incredible feat at the age of 20. Since then, Osaka has won two slam titles in her career and has been ranked number one by the Women’s Tennis Association. She remains the only player of Haitian or Asian descent to hold the top ranking in singles.
Osaka moved from Japan to New York at age three but later gave up her U.S. citizenship to represent Japan in the Olympics, a choice Japan requires its athletes to make before turning 22. She’s been involved with influential sportswear collaborations while addressing matters of sexism and racism within the sports industry, both in Japan and internationally, issues she’s been subjected to during her young career. Like Megan Rapinoe, Osaka has a strong following in her online community (with 1.1 million Instagram followers) and uses her platform for social activism and championing women in sports.
Megan Rapinoe – Women’s Football (Soccer)
Megan Rapinoe’s international success is not only undeniable but also on par with the golden boys at the dizzying heights of men’s football rankings, winning six global awards – the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Star Team, 2019 Ballon d’Or Féminin, 2019 The Best FIFA Women’s Player, 2019 FIFA FIFPro Women’s World XI, 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Golden Ball and the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Golden Boot.
In addition to her global success, Rapinoe is hugely influential with a devoted fan base that includes her 2.2 million Instagram followers. She’s used this platform for activism, regularly speaking out about the gender pay gap in the sports world, LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Dina Asher-Smith – Track and Field
The fastest woman in British history can’t fail to make the list of 2020’s most influential sports stars. After smashing national records, Dina Asher-Smith was named in the 2019 Powerlist as one of the U.K.’s most influential people with African, African-Caribbean and African-American heritage. Not only has she smashed the British 100m record in London but also gone on to break the British 200m and 4x100m relay records at the World Championships in Doha in Qatar. She is certainly one to watch for the rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Olympics!
Her background in park running in London is inspiring for young women everywhere. She’s gone from strength-to-strength throughout her childhood and career, not to mention the 2:1 history degree she earned at King’s College London. If there were ever an athlete that proved to young girls that they can excel in any way they choose, it’s Dina Asher-Smith.
In recent years women have shown resilience, power and breath-taking talent throughout the world of sport. Although times are uncertain for the sports sector as a whole, these inspiring women are sure to bounce right back. They’ve already inspired women everywhere as they’ve battled through countless adversities. There’s no doubt they’ll be ready to get back into action in the post-lockdown world.
With an undergraduate BA (Hons) degree in English Literature from the University of Leeds, Delilah Kealy Roberts is a writer specializing in technology, travel and culture.
Photo by Jamie Smed / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)