Visiting a pre-Title IX world

Tea Kuchekhidze

Jane McManus talked with women and girls who are just beginning to dream of getting the chance to participate in or cover sports.

Batumi is a town on the Black Sea in western Georgia, with high-rise hotels and glittery casinos competing for the skyline with worn Soviet-era apartment buildings where arcs of laundry hang flat under windows.

I visited Batumi with a group organized by the U.S. State Department to empower women through sports. I traveled from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea talking to people in Georgia and Azerbaijan about sports, gender and media.

The two nations I visited on my trip are pre-Title IX when it comes to athletics for girls, although boys don't seem to fare much better. Schools don't have sports teams, and driving into towns, it was clear that there just aren't a lot of facilities -- like soccer fields -- for kids to play sports. I spoke to school and public officials who were interested in providing more sports opportunities as a public health measure, but there are more pressing needs in regions where poverty is an issue.

In so many ways, my life was shaped by Title IX, but I have never known anything else. On the other side of the world, there are women waiting to know what those opportunities would feel like. It was like we were on opposite sides of a clear wall, looking at each other and trying to imagine what it feels like on the other side of the glass.

In so many ways, my life was shaped by Title IX, but I have never known anything else. On the other side of the world, there are women waiting to know what those opportunities would feel like. It was like we were on opposite sides of a clear wall, looking at each other and trying to imagine what it feels like on the other side of the glass.

In Batumi, I spoke to a class of 40 or 50 English students at Batumi State University. Nearly all were women, and most were learning about the United States. When I finished my presentation, which discussed Title IX and the variety of sports options for girls in our country, Nino Lukhutashuili raised her hand.

She spoke with her eyes down. When Lukhutashuili was 10, she was a gymnastics vice champion in the Adjara region. But her coach moved away, and no one had the expertise to take his place. Her days as a gymnast ended, and it is something she has regretted ever since.

"When I'm watching gymnasts on TV, it's very hard for me," she said. "Sometimes tears come."

While I tried to impart information about my experience and the revolution of gender roles in America, I learned as much from the people I spoke with, like Lukhutashuili.

In the United States, in many important ways the road to gender equity has been paved. It isn't perfect -- women still aren't paid as well as their male counterparts, for example -- but there are few roles to which a little girl can't aspire.

Everywhere I went in Georgia, from colleges to youth groups, young women would ask how they could play. I often looked around at the classes filled with women and suggested they take matters into their own hands with a soccer ball and a patch of grass. Georgia seems more open to those opportunities as it moves toward the European Union.

It is different in Ganja, a city in central Azerbaijan, where high school principal Sahiba Pashayeva committed the revolutionary, almost dangerous, act of starting a basketball team for girls. Those girls -- and their counterparts on the boys' team -- came to hear my presentation on a Saturday morning.

"I want women to be in sports because of what it does for confidence and fitness," Pashayeva said. "I want to see their strengths and confidence come out."

Pashayeva also tried to start a soccer team but said she couldn't recruit a single player because the girls were too shy. Shy, or worried about upsetting cultural norms? "Good question," she said. "Probably both."

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation next to Iran, is starting to host international competitions. The U-17 Women's World Cup was held last year at Tofig Bahramov Stadium, a new 30,000-seat soccer facility. In 2015, Azerbaijan will host the European Games, and it is building another stadium twice that size. But for the country to truly be taken seriously on the world stage, Mehman Karimov, international adviser to Azerbaijan's Olympic committee, knows it must develop more programs for girls.

Part of the issue is persuading mothers to allow their daughters to take part in sports when it isn't socially accepted. A discussion at Azerbaijan's Olympic headquarters in the capital city of Baku turned into a brainstorming session on that issue. One of the trainers for the women's national soccer program said she had to venture to her old hometown to personally appeal to parents on behalf of promising players. Using her experience as a model, she convinced the parents of six girls to let them play.

Without many girls playing, there aren't many women reporting on sports.

Samira Mustafayeva, a news and weekend sports anchor at the network ATV, was interested in ways to pull women into sports reporting. At a meeting of Azerbaijan's Association of Women Journalists, I met women like Mustafayeva and Sevil Yusifova, who want to improve opportunities for women in the profession. They want to speed up the progress they see approaching.

Although they operate in a different media environment from the U.S., many of the journalists I spoke to, male and female, have similar concerns to the ones faced in America. I was asked about social media, sourcing issues, misleading sources -- even how to ensure that niche athletes get the spotlight they deserve in non-Olympic years.

I imagined what it would be like to switch places with one of the few women in sports journalism that I met. In some ways, it would be like going back to 1972. I would be an anomaly in my profession. I would have to fight for my two daughters to have access to sports teams.

But in another sense, I would have a front-row seat to a new era.

What became clear, on my side of the imaginary glass wall, was how difficult it was to fully imagine life on the other side. The opportunities I've had to play and report seem impossible to relinquish. For women like Lukhutashuili and Pashayeva, it must seem as though such opportunities are as solid as smoke.

But what was most encouraging was meeting the girls on Georgia's U-13 soccer team and a Ganja high school basketball team. I know they serve as placeholders for their younger sisters. Likewise, journalists like Mustafayeva and Yusifova are waiting to welcome young women to sports journalism careers.

They are all resources for nations that are in transition, looking up at the mountain and beginning the thankless trudge upward for the benefit of their daughters.

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