After World Cup, still a long way to go

The 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany, won by Japan in a thrilling shootout finale on Sunday, was another shining moment for women's sports. With impressive crowds and rousing performances, the event once again showed how women's sports can impress and inspire, and once again revealed the depth of pride nations feel when their top female athletes prevail.

As I watched the World Cup, I thought about what these contests can teach us about the progress of women's sports around the world. In recent months, a Czech beat a Russian to win the women's singles competition at Wimbledon, a South Korean won the U.S. Women's Open in Colorado Springs and the U.S. prevailed over Canada in an overtime classic at the women's world ice hockey championships in Zurich. And a little more than a year from now, the best female athletes from around the world will appear on the biggest global stage of all when the 2012 Summer Olympics get under way in London.

Clearly, there are many positives to report. Women around the world are playing sports at a high and entertaining level, and their efforts are attracting growing attention and praise. In tennis, the heightened appreciation for the accomplishments of the players has translated into seven-figure paydays and household-name status for the stars. In basketball, the success of the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 directly led to the launch of the WNBA, which is currently celebrating its 15th season. And the rapid globalization of women's golf is evident at every LPGA event.

Countries in which the development of women's sports has historically lagged are now starting to make great strides. Last fall, I sat in a full arena in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, at the FIBA women's basketball world championship, watching the Americans, led by Diana Taurasi, defeat a stubborn Czech team to take the gold medal. The Czechs, who were the Cinderella team, surprised everyone by making it to the final, and the pride and euphoria of the Czech fans (including President Vaclav Klaus and other dignitaries) produced a crowd energy that matched anything I've seen at a basketball game -- and I've been to a lot of them.

Progress? For sure. But challenges remain, and there's still work to be done. Cultural obstacles, for example, remain a fact of life for women athletes around the world. Although participation in sports has become a given for women and girls in our country, the freedom to sweat doesn't universally apply, and in countries where females are otherwise held back politically and socially, sports tend to be on the list of closed doors.

One way cultural restraints come into play is in athletic attire. In team sports like soccer and basketball, governing bodies have strict edicts regarding the types of uniforms players must wear -- usually shorts to the knee and short-sleeved or sleeveless jerseys. These rules occasionally elicit challenges from female athletes whose religions dictates that their heads and/or skin be fully covered during competition. In some cases, these athletes live in societies where religious dictates are the law of the land, meaning that girls and women are barred from playing sports altogether unless these religious-attire rules are followed. How's that for being between a rock and a hard place?

In general, international sports organizations are determined to remain religiously and politically neutral when it comes to apparel and have been reluctant to authorize exceptions. It remains to be seen how these conflicts will be dealt with in the future.

Differing attitudes about sexual orientation have also affected the progress of women's sports globally. In some places, homophobia undercuts the acceptance of female athletes and can curtail critical avenues of support. And in countries where the financial and human resources available for sports programs are limited to begin with, girls' and women's opportunities often take a back seat to the "more important" initiatives created for male athletes.

Having more women in leadership positions could help, but that, too, is a work in progress. Very few women are in the highest levels of major domestic and international sports organizations, and the ones who are usually find themselves in a distinct minority, with limits on how much they can influence policy. Even when organizations commit philosophically to enhancing their women's sports programs, the press of other business and claims of insufficient resources often preclude meaningful change, at least in the short term. The disparities are especially glaring in Africa, in parts of Latin America and in the Middle East, which makes the successes of females athletes from those regions all the more noteworthy.

In coaching, women also still have a long way to go. Globally, head coaches in women's sports at the national level are overwhelmingly male, in both team and individual sports. The dearth of women at even the assistant level and the absence of pipelines to groom future candidates have slowed the movement of women to the sideline. Having Pia Sundhage lead the U.S. women's soccer effort and Katey Stone at the helm of our women's ice hockey program establishes the U.S. as a leader in bringing female coaches to the fore and sets an important example for other countries.

As I watch women competing at the national team level in soccer and ice hockey, I also wonder if U.S. success in those sports will translate into visible and long-lasting outlets at the professional level, as they have in basketball. Competing every few years on the global stage wearing "USA" on a jersey is one thing, but attracting fans yearly while playing in a pro league is a different proposition altogether. Translating spectator and media interest in the former to successful businesses built around the latter remains one of the most important, and daunting, tests.

Despite these challenges, the progress of women in sports across the planet is unmistakable and inspiring. The Women's World Cup proved that many people care. One hopes that a lingering effect will be continuing investment in sports programs for young girls everywhere and an expanded commitment to the training and coaching needed for more national teams to compete for medals in the future.

As the reaction in Japan shows, women's sports winners can make their nations very happy, and very proud.

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