Olympic success is fleeting for Canadian women after cheers

Claire Thompson, like many girls who love hockey, started playing hockey when she was four years old. She was 12 when she watched the Canadian women’s team win gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And that, she decided, was what she wanted to be a part of one day.

Now that she has just turned 24, she is on her way to being named to the Canadian slate for the Beijing Olympics.

For her, there was a path to this point. She grew up in Toronto watching high-level women’s hockey — not just every four years at the Olympics, but regularly in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

“Growing up, I had the CWHL to look up to,” says Thompson, who was a star at Princeton University until she graduated in 2020. Toronto Furies with my mom and dad and two sisters. It was really inspiring.

No more. The league she grew up watching is gone, which means the next generation of Claires – who could watch the Olympic tournament in February and come away with their own Olympic dreams – will have a much harder time seeing the way forward.

The Canadians were celebrated for their success at the Tokyo Summer Games and are about to be celebrated once again in Beijing. For the first time in Olympic Winter Games history, nearly half of Canada’s athletes — 106 out of 215 — will compete in women’s events. But away from this spotlight, they still have a long way to go to achieve equality in sport in this country.

The CWHL shutting down in 2019 – never achieving its goal of a living wage for players – also means that after the Olympics conclude next month, Thompson will not return home to a professional national league where she can make a living and keep it. skills for the next Team Canada call.

That’s why she’s downstairs with Olympic veterans and others who are once again trying to create a sustainable, high-paying professional league for women in this country, this time through the Association. female professional hockey players. On Friday, the Seattle Times, citing unnamed sources, reported that the PWHPA hopes to launch a new league in the fall.

(The US-based Premier Hockey Federation, which has a team in Toronto and plans to expand to Montreal, hasn’t offered players a living wage to date.)

Women in hockey aren’t the only ones fighting for a fraction of the opportunities their male counterparts get. Canada won Olympic gold in women’s soccer for the first time in Tokyo, but those players don’t have a national professional league either. Canada is the only FIFA top 10 country that does not have one.

“The the infrastructure for women’s sport just isn’t up to par,” says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, Executive Director of Women and Sport in Canada. “It’s so much less for the women’s team compared to the men’s team in many major sports, and yet we win medals… It distorts things a bit for the public, because they assume that if we win medals, everything works all the way up to this point.

Women have won 75% of Canada’s 24 medals at the COVID-delayed Tokyo Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee has touted its success in closing a long-standing gender gap. The Beijing Games, which open on February 4, will be “the most gender-balanced edition of the Olympic Winter Games to date”, with female athletes making up 45% of the total, according to the IOC.

But that number glosses over much of the context that still leaves many female athletes, including Olympians, struggling with less funding and support, fewer opportunities to train and compete, and too few role models. at all levels, say athletes and advocates.

The pandemic has added to these problems with women’s competitions – from hockey to ski jumping – being canceled and not rescheduled more often than men’s events.

The big step for women in Beijing will be an increase of two bobsled events, which the men have long had. But they don’t get the four-person marquee event. They get the monobob, for an athlete, leading Canadian bobsleigh pilot Cynthia Appiah to say that “women have been wronged”.

There will be a luge doubles event for men, but not for women. Ski jumpers will compete on the normal hill, but the large hill is prohibited. Nordic combined still has no women’s events. And in biathlon, cross-country skiing and speed skating, women compete over shorter distances than men.

Much of this has to do with the state of international sports federations, which is beyond the control of the IOC. That’s why some athletes say they hope people enjoy the great women’s competition on offer at the Olympics, then push for more and better support the rest of the time.

“People listen to us every four years, then kinda forget about us for the other three years,” says Natalie Spooner, representing Canada at her third Olympic Games.

She won a hockey gold medal in Sochi in 2014 and a silver medal in Pyeongchang in 2018. At 31, she is still optimistic that she will soon have the opportunity to earn a living playing to the sport she loves in Canada.

“There are obviously times when you wish he was here sooner,” she says. “You would like to have a place to play that looks like the guys.”

Watch, encourage, then demand more and better for girls and women at all levels, that’s Sandmeyer-Graves’ advice to Canadian fans.

“We’re coming out of one Olympics and heading into another. There is such a huge following and enthusiasm for women’s football, whatever it is, especially when they are doing well,” she said.

“The Olympics are a really powerful tool to inspire people to play sport and to continue in their sport. But there’s not enough investment and attention in the communities where girls actually play, or where they would like to play, to move them forward and sustain them long enough to be active for life or hopefully , appear on the catwalk one day.

When Thompson hits the ice for the Olympic tournament, she will have personal goals and a few for those watching at home.

“I hope they see some amazing games. I hope they see how much the game has evolved in recent years and since women’s hockey started in the Olympics,” she said.

“And honestly, I also hope they see Canada win a gold medal.”

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