The year 2020 witnessed a paucity of live sport like we have not seen in decades. For fans, it meant staying away from stadiums for a large part of the 12 months. For the writers at Scroll.in, it meant a chance to reflect to on events in the past and taking stock of what’s to come. This year-end series is a personal take on what covering sports in 2020 was like.
To discuss the value of pro sport in a year where a global pandemic changed the world may seem strange from the outside.
The total shutdown of global sport was seen as just one relatively less cruel consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, sport was among the first things to return to near normalcy once protocols were in place. Almost all other major sporting tournaments which were delayed or curtailed took place in some form or the other.
Bottom line was that pro sport did not suffer as much, despite dealing with profound economic effects. But look deeper and you’ll see that what got left behind, inadvertently or by design, was women’s sport.
Often relegated to the back benches, the shutdown brought the gender inequality in sport into starker contrast this year, especially in India. When push came to shove, it was the financially more lucrative men’s sport that got the preference by most organisations. Pro sport is an industry after all. But for those of us who constantly try to highlight women’s sport in the media, this was particularly disappointing.
This is not to say that women’s sport was completely disregarded. In Europe, North America and Oceania, women’s competitions were held, often on the same scale. The WNBA took place in a bubble and Lyon won the Women’s Champions League for the fifth straight time. The England and Wales Cricket Board, who were the first to restart cricket in a bio-bubble, ensured the women’s team had a series to play and bore the costs while Cricket Australia put up a full-strength Women’s Big Bash League.
But the glaring inequity was evident, deliberate or otherwise.
The FA Women’s Super League was called off after consultation with clubs while its male counterpart, the Premier League, returned even as Liverpool were all but confirmed champions. The gender discrimination case by the US women’s football team saw a frustratingly sexist judgment with Megan Rapinoe, among others, having to repeatedly defend equal pay.
Tennis, one of the more gender-balanced sports with the women’s tour having an independent governing body, also suffered due to the latter swing of the WTA being almost exclusively in Asia. While the men’s tennis calendar remained largely the same with major tournaments in Europe, women barely got a chance to compete in big-ticket events post French Open.
But the most jarring discrepancy was closer home. Understandably, India could not host tournaments due to the rising Covid-19 cases and this was in no way an Indian problem alone. Still, it was hard to witness the Indian sportswomen lag behind the men.
Before the shutdown in March, women’s cricket had set a new record for biggest crowd when Australia won an unprecedented fifth T20 World Cup title. The high-scale tournament was supposed to be the catalyst for the game, and it still could be.
But the team that lost the T20 World Cup final – India – is a classic example of just how much women’s sport suffered by the combined factors of coronavirus and callousness.
The Indian women’s cricket team has not played a single match since and has no official future calendar planned, international or domestic. This, despite having a golden opportunity as the ECB offered to ferry and host India for the scheduled series in England. But the BCCI refused, saying it would be difficult to assemble the team in India due to the pandemic.
The same board later organised the Indian Premier League in the United Arab Emirates, which was a massive exercise admirably pulled off. Admittedly, they hosted a four-day Women’s T20 Challenge as part of it. But it all felt an act of tokenism when the quarantine period in India and UAE was longer than the actual tournament, and the timing of it robbed the better players of a chance to play in the WBBL.
Still, we were told that the women’s team got four whole exhibition matches to play in the year, and that was supposed to be celebrated.
It was a similar story with Indian football.
With the Fifa Under-17 World Cup postponed, host India’s team was left to fend for itself and a couple of players from Jharkhand struggled to even get square meals, before help came in.
There was much to cheer when Bala Devi became the first Indian woman to sign a professional contract in a top-flight European club and later in the year, scored a goal for Rangers FC. But the Indian Women’s League, the country’s top-flight football league for women, was left behind even as the Indian Super League restarted in one venue behind closed doors.
The All India Football Federation has highlighted a future roadmap for women’s football, with the World Cup as focus, and the hope will be that it grows beyond the virtual presentation.
By contrast, both the senior men’s and women’s hockey teams were in national camps while individual Olympic sports like boxing, wrestling, badminton and shooting conducted training camps for the core groups as well, despite logistical troubles.
Another way to look at it will be that this inequality being highlighted is also a step forward for women’s sport. In the last few years, women’s sports have been taking center stage worldwide. This gain in prominence and popularity means any partial treatment is no longer considered the norm, but a discrepancy.
But no matter which way you look at it, the bottom line is that while the virus itself didn’t discriminate, the recovery from the pandemic was anything but for women in sport. Rather, the pandemic just served a stark reminder of the inequality that was always there. The silver lining to this cloud is that it will be spoken about, highlighted until a change takes place.
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