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A Girl’s Place is on an Inclusive Playing Field: Women Sports Leaders Discuss How to Make Sports Inclusive for All

Group of women standing up behind a table for a group photo.

Using Special Olympics World Games in Berlin as a backdrop, women sports leaders discussed ways to improve opportunities for women and girls to engage in sports. They want to develop achievable actions for participation parity, and to show why sports partnerships are vitally important for delivering equity and inclusion on the playing field, throughout the sports industry, and in communities around the world.

“Special Olympics was founded by a woman who was restless, rebellious, and wouldn’t take no for answer."
Mary Davis, CEO, Special Olympics International

Olympic gold medal swimmer Donna de Varona, and six-time Special Olympics cycling champion, and newly elected Chair of the Global Athlete Conference, Kiera Byland co-hosted the discussion. Byland’s election at the Games means she will join the Special Olympics Board of Directors.

The panelists included:

The panel discussion began when Special Olympics International CEO, Mary Davis reminded panelists of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s passion for women in sports. “Special Olympics was founded by a woman who was restless, rebellious, and wouldn’t take no for answer,” said Davis, “She was driven by her sister Rosemary, who had intellectual disabilities, but Eunice demanded that she be included in all the family sports. She wanted a world where girls were included, too. She was a woman who valued sports and knew that sports builds confidence and self-esteem.”

Eunice & Rosemary

Eunice and Rosemary
The relationship between Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her sister Rosemary Kennedy was the root of the entire Special Olympics movement.

As the Global Presenting Sponsor of Unified Sports and the Official Broadcaster for Special Olympics USA and World Games, ESPN gives Special Olympics a valuable way to share the message of inclusion with the world and enables more women and girls to see themselves playing sports. Kate Jackson, VP Production for ESPN elaborated, “Sports is a reflection of culture. ESPN is a culture carrier. Representation matters. How we approach it is how it is received. When you see yourself represented in sports and on TV, it matters.”

Co-moderator de Varona asked how Special Olympics can sustain the momentum that with the global broadcast of the Games and between World Games events, especially for getting and keeping women and girls engaged in sports.

“We need more women in sports leadership,” said Emanuelle Dutra, Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger & Special Olympics athlete, “I tell young girls, don’t give up on your dreams. I have them too. Like a lot of girls and women, I have faced many closed doors, and Special Olympics has opened them and given me opportunities.”

Vania King, Women’s Tennis Association Grand Slam Champion emphasized the need for advocacy for other women and girls and gender parity within sports, citing her experiences playing tennis. “While tennis is now one of the highest paid sports for women, it has been very discriminatory to marginalized groups, females, and especially people of color. I faced challenges. It is important that there are advocates who give voice and strive for equity.”

Jackson added, “Having an advocate is important when you want to make a change. I tell others when you get involved with Special Olympics, be prepared because it will crawl inside your heart and never leave. Special Olympics provides opportunities for real human connections through storytelling. The more we can lean into the human storytelling through sports, the more we will grow.”

Emma Zweibler of the Badminton World Federation said it’s important to take a multi-prong approach to ensuring opportunities for women and girls. “BWF is encouraging women in sports on and off the playing field. We’re putting equal opportunities in place. We have been addressing gender imbalance in coaches, in technical delegates, in coaches, and in leadership. It’s a bottom up, top-down focus—from the bottom up, we’re ensuring equal opportunities for gender, equity, diversity, and inclusion across programs,” said Zweibler, “From the top down, we’re emphasizing the importance of advocacy and mentorship from people in positions of power and decision-making for women to feel to valued, supported, and encouraged to move into leadership positions. We also want sponsorship. We need those in power to also promote and sponsor women into more influential roles—to talk about them in a positive way when they’re not in the room. For our athletes with ID, we are designing everything included in all of our policies. It isn’t a separate one for them. BWF is monitoring and evaluating our actions and initiatives, but more importantly, we are committed to publicly report our outcomes.”

In 2019, BWF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Special Olympics at the World Games in Abu Dhabi. Since then, the two organizations have been working together on a strategic plan for developing and implementing actions for inclusion. Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis said, “Sports partnerships like the one we have with BWF are critical to our success and for expanding opportunities for leveling the playing field for all of our athletes, especially women and girls. But just signing an MOU means nothing if we don’t implement real change.”

Donna de Varona, prodded the panelists to think even more intentionally. “Sports is a foundation, but where do we go from here?” she asked. She detailed a recent Ernst and Young-ESPNW study that revealed 94% of women in C-Suites played sports, 52% of them competed in the college level and 77% of C-Suite women believe that women who play sports make good employees.

“Women need to be supportive of each other in every area of sport and off the playing field,” Byland said.

An audience member watching the panel discussion asked where this leaves men and whether men no longer have a place in sports. Jackson quickly responded, “Men need to be advocates for women, of course there’s a place for men, but make room for us at the table,” Jackson continued, “Don’t make assumptions. Create a space—unconscious bias is there because it’s unconscious. Make a space and find ways to include us.”

Donna de Varona added, “Sports is the last male sandbox. We have come a long way since I first started working on Title IX initiatives, but the more diverse the group, the more diverse we are. Fear is the hardest part to overcome. We need governments’ focus, we need leaders, we need men to stand up with us. We’re not taking your spot or your sport, we just want to compete, too.”

“While we are seeing some great strides,” Davis said, “for example at Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, we had a lot of new participation in women’s basketball. Research is also helping us to increase women’s participation. But there are many barriers that we still need to overcome on the local level. Facilities need to be improved to make space for female athletes to change into their sports gear. Fear deters so many women from participating in sports. We have to help women and girls feel welcomed and encourage their participation. We also need to find more ways for Olympics, Paralympics, and Special Olympics to work together strategically for women and girls."

“It’s also important that when partnerships are formed, they need to be unified, meaningful, equal partnerships that really listen and hear because listening is a two-way process. We have to make sure that both sides are heard, and we need to work together.”
Kiera Byland, Panel Co-Moderator and Special Olympics Athlete and Health Messenger

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