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Opinion: How diversity, innovation and fair play make sports better

The growth in popularity of women’s team sports in recent decades has demonstrated what happens when coaches and athletes pursue constant improvement. 
The 2023 Women’s World Cup obliterated previous records for stadium attendance, television and online viewership, and social media participation.

Why do so many people enjoy sports?  Perhaps it is because they challenge us to be better, and nothing is more thrilling than achieving what seemed to be impossible.  Of course, life is full of challenging and fulfilling activities and sports are not for everyone, but it is hard to think of a society that does not have some form of athletics.

Anything good, however, attracts bad people seeking to gain legitimacy.  Sports throughout the years have been rife with racism, sexism, and manipulation.  We too often confuse winning with succeeding in sports and have thus put dysfunctional people onto high pedestals. 

Because sports are about becoming better, however, they tend to change and adapt, giving fairness and equity a chance to thrive.  A coach naturally wants to work with the best players, and fans are most entertained by the athletes with the greatest skill.  Sports allowed for racial integration because it created a larger pool of players to draw from, and this led to better-quality athletes on the field of play.  What was right and fair, as always, led to improvement.

It is also important to note that size and strength are not the only elements of greatness in athletics.  Skill, endurance, strategy, determination, and perseverance are also essential.  Sports tend to drive people to be their very best, and in doing so, one must always overcome challenges and setbacks.  It is not a coincidence that books and movies about triumph over what is seemingly impossible often centre around the story of an athlete.

The growth in popularity of women’s team sports in recent decades has demonstrated what happens when coaches and athletes pursue constant improvement.  Men are larger and more muscular, but this does not mean that men’s team sports are more entertaining.  As the skill level in women’s sports has increased, so has the fan base. 

The most significant illustration of this growth was demonstrated in soccer’s 2023 Women’s World Cup this past summer.  Previous records were obliterated in stadium attendance, television and online viewership, and social media participation.  It is very clear that fans were not only interested in supporting women’s sports, fans were watching because they love to see “the beautiful game” played at its highest level of skill and teamwork.

On a personal level, I was thrilled to see Alex Chidiac, the first Chidiac in the world to achieve such a high level in professional and international sports, come off the bench for Australia to play with energy and determination.  Her Matildas exceeded all expectations and not only came in fourth place in the tournament but won the hearts of an entire country, if not the world.

Unfortunately, this year’s World Cup was not without controversy.  As the Spanish team came to the podium to receive their medals for winning the tournament, the toxicity of their organization was on full display as Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s soccer federation, grabbed star midfielder Jennifer Hermoso by the head and forcibly kissed her on the lips.  This has since brought to light allegations of misogyny, misconduct, and other improprieties throughout the Spanish soccer organization, including complaints about the coach of the women’s team.

What we cannot overlook, however, is that the Spanish team is now the best in the world.  Despite what was going on behind the scenes, players were able to focus on the task at hand, winning a championship.  The enormity of this feat cannot be underestimated. 

Hermoso and her teammates illustrate all that is good about sports.  Despite the efforts of people like Rubiales to diminish us, there is something in the human spirit that is aware of the greatness that lies within.  Sports can give us the motivation to not only achieve our greatness but to inspire others to do the same.

Gerry Chidiac is a Prince George writer.