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World Cup Picks Up Baton for Women’s Sports in Australia

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World Cup Picks Up Baton for Women’s Sports in Australia

Fans celebrated in central Melbourne this week after a national triumph: The Matildas, the Australian women’s soccer team, had defeated Canada, the reigning Olympic champion, 4-0.

It was a glorious victory after a dismal start to the Women’s World Cup for one of the two host teams. In Federation Square, Australians held up gold and green scarves and bellowed, “Up the Matildas!”

Two years earlier, the same city had seen a similar outpouring of support for the Australian women’s cricket team. Inside Melbourne Cricket Ground, more than 86,000 people had gathered to watch the final of the Women’s T20 World Cup, while 1.2 million people tuned in from elsewhere in Australia.

For Ellyse Perry, an Australian sporting legend who has represented the country in both the cricket and soccer World Cups, the 2020 match — the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s cricket match — was a milestone for women’s sports in Australia.

“It’s really now starting to become embedded in general society, and it’s commonplace,” she said. “We don’t think differently about it. It’s not an oddity any more.”

For as long as there have been sports in Australia, women have clamored to play and participate. What is believed to be the world’s first cycling race for women took place in Sydney in 1888; the country’s first golf championship, in 1894, was women only; and at the 1912 Olympics, Australian women won silver and gold in the first women’s Olympic freestyle race.

Yet even though Australian women’s sports have an extensive and proud history, only recently have they received significant mainstream support. A strong run in the World Cup — Australia will face Denmark in the round of 16 on Monday — was seen as an opportunity to change that, to cement the place of women’s sports in the country’s daily rhythms and conversation.

Sam Kerr, the Matildas star who is widely regarded as one of the best players in the world, said the impact of the tournament on women’s soccer was all but unimaginable.

“For years to come, this will be talked about — hopefully, decades to come,” she told reporters last month, citing an uptick in young boys and girls coming to women’s soccer games.

A longer view on the history of women’s sports in Australia involves many moments of triumph, but also times when able and enthusiastic sportswomen were simply shut out.

“There are peaks and troughs all the way through,” Marion Stell, a historian at the University of Queensland, said of women’s sports in Australia. “Women make advances — but then it goes away again. It’s never a smooth upward curve.”

Only in the past couple of decades had female athletes been able to make consistent strides on pay, opportunities and representation, she added. Today, half of all Australian girls play sports at least once a week, according to the Australian Sports Commission, compared with about 30 percent of girls in the United States.

“I don’t think anyone would have dreamed that it would happen so quickly,” Dr. Stell said. “On one hand, it’s been very slow. But on the other hand, when it happened, the floodgates just opened.”

Yet despite their enthusiasm, and their prodigious talent for bringing home Olympic medals, female athletes in Australia have, like their international peers, historically been sidelined, blocked or simply not taken seriously.

In 1980, women’s sports made up about 2 percent of print sports coverage in Australia. By 2009, women’s sports made up about 9 percent of television news coverage, according to a report from the Australian Sports Commission. But the balance appears to be shifting: A poll last year found that nearly 70 percent of Australians had watched more women’s sports since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of it has been in line with the way that social perception has changed more broadly, in terms of how we perceive women’s role in society, and particularly the workplace,” said Perry, the sports star.

Dr. Stell, the historian, pointed further back. She saw the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where Australia failed to win a single gold medal, as a turning point. The country’s lackluster performance spurred a significant backlash in the Australian news media, which described the results as a “crisis for the government” and called for action for Australia to “regain its lost athletic potency.”

Women had historically been something of a golden goose for Australia at the Olympics, making up a minority of the country’s total athletes but often winning the majority of its medals. At the 1972 Games in Munich, for instance, 10 out of 17 Australian medals were won by women, even as they made up only about 17 percent of the team.

And so in 1981, Australia established the Australian Institute of Sport, a high-performance sports training center for both men and women that, for the first time, gave women the financial support to concentrate on their sports full-time — beginning with Australian rules football, basketball, gymnastics, netball, swimming, tennis, track and field and weight lifting.

That was followed a few years later by the Sex Discrimination Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality.

“Those two things together might be some kind of watershed,” Dr. Stell said. “But not, I guess, in the public imagination — more in sporting women’s lives.”

Even after that, female athletes in most other sports often had no alternative but to play in a semiprofessional capacity. In the mid-1990s, as male Australian cricket players were on the cusp of striking over what they felt was inadequate remuneration, female players in the sport barely had their expenses covered, and often had to pay their own way to compete. Most juggled jobs and other commitments alongside their sports careers.

“How did it make me feel? I just wanted to play as much cricket as I possibly could,” said Belinda Clark, who was the captain of Australia’s World Cup-winning women’s cricket teams in 1997 and 2005.

She added: “We all structured our lives — our working lives and our personal lives — around being able to do that. That comes at a financial cost. We all accepted that.”

In recent decades, cricket has led the charge on fair pay for female athletes in Australia. While male cricketers still significantly out-earn their female counterparts, the majority of female players earn at least 100,000 Australian dollars, or $66,000. By comparison, female players of Australian rules football, rugby league, netball and professional soccer have a minimum salary of less than half of that — a source of ongoing tension since it is far below the country’s living wage.

Across all sports, perhaps the most important factor for female athletes was having women in positions of responsibility across journalism, management, coaching, umpiring and administration, Dr. Stell said.

In the early 1980s, Australian universities began to offer the country’s first sports management degrees. “That kind of allowed women to get a kind of professional qualification so that they could take the administration of sports off the kitchen table and make it more professional,” she said.

Women are gradually becoming more visible as sports people in Australia. But it was not until earlier this year that a female cricket player was celebrated in statue form for the first time, though the country claims more than 70 statues of male players.

A bronze statue of Clark was unveiled at Sydney Cricket Ground in January; it is the first public statue of any female cricket player anywhere in the world. Representation of that kind sends a powerful message, especially to younger players, Clark said.

“What are the photos in the club? Who’s on the honor boards? What are we saying to the people that walk in this door?” she asked. “Are you part of this, or are you a guest or a visitor?

“It symbolizes that you’re actually part of it. You’re no longer coming, cap in hand, to beg for an opportunity.”

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