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New doc analyzes equality in sports

Play Fair to air on Sportsnet and stream online



Kaillie Humphries feared her fight would be fruitless.

But this past season, Humphries' three-year campaign to allow women to compete in four-man bobsleigh came to a satisfying conclusion when she took part in the event at a race in Utah last November. Earlier in the year, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) changed the rules so the four-man event is gender neutral, allowing Humphries and American Elana Meyers Taylor to compete for the first time.

"It came more from me wanting to push myself to be bigger, to get faster, to be better," she said. "There was definitely a lot of push back (from FIBT).

"It was a process I knew was going to take time. It was a process that I never fully thought, in all fairness, was going to come through. You never give up, and if you want something, go after it, but at the end of the day, bobsleigh is still very much an old boys' club."

The two-time defending Olympic gold medallist and 2014 Lou Marsh Award winner was one of several elite athletes to tell her story in a new documentary, which she hopes will help to motivate other women to "push the boundaries" like she did. Play Fair analyzes women's rights in sport at the moment and what must be done to truly create level playing fields for both men and women. Rower Silken Laumann, hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser and track and field competitor Abby Hoffman are also featured.

On Wednesday night, July 15, the documentary launched with the first of six airings during Sportsnet's Pan Am Games coverage. It is also available to stream at

"We try to accept the idea of what changed in the history, to celebrate the victories and the accomplishments, but at the same time, cast a critical eye on how things are today," said director Donna Gall.

Play Fair is wide-ranging by design, she explained, looking at women's sport from the elite to the grassroots levels. Issues ranging from access to body image to funding and sponsorship are tackled in the context of a sense of complacency settling in.

"A lot of people look at (girls' participation in sport) and they see that as a point of victory. People can imagine that that's a sign that everything's just great for women in sport and when you start looking a little bit deeper into some of the issues, some of the limitations that women still face in sport today, it becomes less a sign of completion and more a sign of progression and moving in the right direction," Gall said.

When the work stops, Gall has observed, some steps backwards are felt. She noted the number of female coaches and women in leadership positions in Canada has declined in recent years. As well, several studies have highlighted the declining amount of airtime allotted to women's sports on major sports television shows and networks with Gall noting the women's share in the United States slipped to 3.7 per cent from 8.7 per cent since 1999.

"It happens in all areas of feminism, this backlash," she said. "It's the perception that everything's done so the push stops — 'everything's good' or 'stop complaining.' Then the efforts stop and then all of a sudden the gains stop or they slide away."

Gall also observed there were several examples of what were essentially one-woman armies fighting a lonely battle. When that woman retired or gave up, any effort to advance the cause was halted.

"It can't just be left to these individual people. There needs to be systemic change — in Sport Canada, in the way that funding is structured, in the different Olympic committees," she said.

Athletic bodies are beautiful, too

Gall said while athletes of both sexes are sexualized, men tend to be celebrated for the manifestations of their athleticism, like large muscles, for example. As recently as this weekend, furor erupted around Wimbledon champion Serena Williams and her perceived lack of femininity.

"For women, it's about having a tighter bum or flatter abs," Gall said.

Humphries agreed, explaining body image issues can start when girls are quite young. For sports' benefits like confidence and leadership, one hurdle for many is understanding the benefits, too, of an athletic body.

"I know a lot of girls, starting at age 10 and all the way up through 16, have an issue with body image and understanding that being an athletic woman, you are going to have more muscle. What does that look like? Is that attractive to guys?" she said. "When you're at an age where you're self conscious about size or weight, it's making sure that people understand that strong is sexy. Strong is the new look."

For those who want to follow a similar path to Humphries, it's still a rocky road. The Calgarian said women's competition sometimes takes its lumps for not providing the same number of high-quality competitors, but said there needs to be change to make it worth the athlete's while to try to become one.

"If prize money isn't the same, if media coverage isn't the same, if sponsorship's not the same, you don't have the same numbers. And without the numbers, you're not going to get the same intensity. You're not going to get the same amount of achievement," Humphries said.

While girls are signing up for sports in greater numbers than ever before, they're also dropping out in concerning numbers when hitting puberty. Gall hopes to stem the exodus, highlighting the importance of playing for fun.

"If there's one thing I want people to walk away (with) from it, it is that inspiration that even if you're not going to be in the Olympics, (to adopt) this idea of pushing your body and becoming a stronger person," she said. "It's very particular to girls in this context because it's still not the natural, good instinct.

"It's still not 'For sure my kid's going to be involved in this and will stay involved in this until she's 85.'"


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