By Alana Leabeater – current Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science / Bachelor of Arts in International Studies student
Argentina is a country driven by passion. Passion for food, dance, music and above all, for sport. But one area where passion is lacking is women’s sport – an underfunded, unimportant activity in the eyes of most Argentinians, who revere their male soccer idols like gods and protest on the streets when the national team doesn’t win.
I have been living in Argentina for eight months and during this time have come to understand the status of women’s sport intimately, as it was the focus of my major project for my International Studies degree (undertaken concurrently with my Sport and Exercise Science degree).
During this project, I met and interviewed a range of elite female athletes and coaches, from Olympic hurdlers and canoeists to members of the first Argentinian national women’s cricket team.
Here’s what I learnt.
Argentinian elite sport is underdeveloped
Where sporting powerhouses like the UK, USA and Australia firmly believe in the importance of performing well in sport on the world stage, it’s not a priority for Argentina. There are more pressing societal issues that occupy the government, and as a result elite sport is underfunded and poorly managed.
This affects most sports, such that only elite male soccer players, male and female hockey players and a select few individual athletes can comfortably live as elite athletes without having a traditional job on the side, mostly because of private sponsorships. In this sense, male and female athletes are – for the most part – equally challenged.
Unsurprisingly, Argentina’s performance at an international level has been declining in recent years.
To be a female athlete is not considered a legitimate career choice
Many athletes told me they had experienced discrimination from people around them for choosing to pursue a career in sport.
Argentina, like most Latin American countries, has an entrenched order of machismo, or masculine pride, that dictates social behaviour. Female athletes are seen as a direct threat to the ‘social order’, challenging both the status of men in Argentinian society, and the country’s sense of national pride, which is strongly tied to men’s soccer.
It doesn’t help that disparaging comments about women’s sport are commonplace and, unfortunately, accepted; for example, Argentina’s most highly regarded soccer player, Diego Maradona, once said that substandard coaches should be handed down to women’s teams.
Women’s sport is affected by a vicious cycle of elements that ensure its underdevelopment
It’s not only one factor that needs to be improved for women’s sport to be elevated in Argentinian society, but many.
For example, with greater economic resources, the quality of women’s sports in Argentina would improve and the ability to be a professional athlete would be possible, if not encouraged. With a higher proportion of professional female athletes, the quality of competition would increase, and greater media investment and coverage would follow. As a result of this, the choice of career to compete in elite female sport would be more popular and widely accepted. Improvement in this cycle would not only improve elite sporting outcomes for women, but research indicates it could improve Argentinian society as a whole.
Despite the less than satisfactory treatment of women’s sport in the country, the Argentinian female athletes I met were hopeful for change and were taking action to try and improve the situation.
One athlete is the new face of a Nike campaign for women in Argentina called ‘Make yourself heard’; another is excelling as a hockey coach alongside her career as a player; and I met a male coach of a high level women’s futsal team who wants to work in women’s sport for the rest of his life to contribute to the struggle for equality.
I hope that in the years to come, I will see change in Argentinian elite women’s sport, and the achievement of this equality.
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