women wonders

Looking back: Kicking off our series on the highs, lows, winners and whiners of the year...

women wonders

There were female champs galore but none reached the top level in administration

In a year when the sports news was so often dark and demoralising, women provided much of the light and the lift. From baselines to finish lines, there were women excelling under pressure, and the world was often watching closely.

Serena Williams successfully fought off big trouble and nagging injuries for much of the season and came within two matches of the first tennis Grand Slam since 1988. Along the way, the 34-year-old American star sparked in-depth discussions about everything from race relations to body image to foul language, eventually becoming the first woman since the distance runner Mary Decker in 1983 to be named Sports Illustrated magazine’s sportsperson of the year without sharing the award.

The United States women’s soccer team, ably led by Carli Lloyd, beat Japan in the final of the World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, watched by an average television audience at home of 25.4 million and by record audiences elsewhere.
There was more, much more.

Katie Ledecky of the United States was the dominant figure at the world swimming championships in Kazan, Russia, winning four individual gold medals and setting three world records. Lydia Ko, an 18-year-old New Zealander, became the youngest player — woman or man — to be ranked No 1 in professional golf when she was still 17.

Simone Biles, an American who has yet to compete in the Olympics but is already, at 18, one of the greatest gymnasts in history, won her third straight world all-around title. Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, the latest Dibaba sister to rise to prominence on the track, set world records at 1,500 metres outdoors and 5,000 metres indoors.

Jessica Ennis-Hill of Britain returned from pregnancy to reclaim her world title in the heptathlon. Lindsey Vonn of the United States returned from major injuries to resume winning ski races on the World Cup circuit.

There were false notes, too. The Kenyan marathon star Rita Jeptoo was banned for two years because of a positive test for the blood booster EPO, a ban that she is contesting. Suzann Pettersen of Norway drew criticism for not showing sportsmanship at golf’s Solheim Cup by insisting that she had not conceded a short putt after one of her opponents had picked up a ball, assuming exactly that. The American team, inspired by the slight, roared back from a big deficit to win the trophy from the Europeans.

But there was also a jarring counterpoint. As visible as female athletes were in 2015, women lost prominence and power in another key domain in the sports world: the boardroom.

Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the WTA Tour, stepped down citing burnout and the desire to spend more time with her young children. Debbie Jevans, a Briton who was perhaps Europe’s leading women’s sports executive, also cited personal reasons for resigning as chief executive of England Rugby 2015 less than six months before the start of the Rugby World Cup that she had been instrumental in organising. Allaster and Jevans were replaced by men, and by year’s end there was no woman leading a major professional sport, not even one for women.

In the Olympic microcosm, where there has been considerable emphasis on this issue and where the percentage of female athletes at the Summer Games is fast approaching 50 percent, only one of the 28 Summer Olympic sports federations has a female president. That is the International Triathlon Union, headed by Marisol Casado of Spain. Only one of the seven Winter Olympic sports federations has a female president: the World Curling Federation, led by Kate Caithness of Britain.

Considering the scandals and governance crises that enveloped leading male-dominated federations like FIFA and the IAAF in 2015, more women in power looked very much like part of the solution. The men could clearly benefit from new perspectives.

“For me, the most important thing about diversity in a workplace is definitely making everyone feel included,” Wittenberg said. “But the diversity that comes from diversity of thinking is also invaluable, and if you don’t have diversity around your executive table or any table, I think you really run a risk today. Organisations, and especially political organisations that lack diversity in any number of ways, including gender — you’re not coming close to representing a world view. Leadership today should be challenged at every turn.”

Despite the regression at the top of the sports world’s corporate flow chart, it was still a year for breaking down gender barriers.

 Jen Welter became the first woman to coach in the National Football League in the United States when the Arizona Cardinals hired her as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason. By year’s end, Chan Yuen-ting had became the first female head coach in the history of Hong Kong Premier League soccer, taking over at Eastern. But top coaching positions for women remain difficult to secure and have become, in some cases, even more difficult to secure. At the women’s soccer World Cup, 16 of the 24 head coaches were men.

Claudia Bokel, a former Olympic fencer for Germany who is a member of the International Olympic Committee, agrees that role models are important. But she not only sees progress, she also represents it as the first female chairman of the IOC’s athletes commission, a post that gives her a spot on the IOC’s powerful executive board.

“We’re four women in the IOC executive board, which is quite a high percentage,” Bokel said of the 15-member group. “So I think we are getting there.”
Presidencies remain elusive, however.

“The pipeline of talented young women is quite deep and pretty broad in sports management right now,” Wittenberg said. “If those women get the opportunity to keep growing, then it will definitely be a different conversation in 10 years time.”

For now, the executives’ collective clout is not in the same league as women’s collective impact on the fields and courts of play. Amid the ambient gloom, it was still their year in many respects, from Roberta Vinci’s charming interview (“Sorry, guys, sorry”) after she ended Williams’s Grand Slam bid to Lloyd’s GIF-ready goal from midfield against Japan.

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