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Together Stronger: The Future of Sport: a review of the 5th World Conference of Women and Sport.

I had the opportunity to attend the 5th World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles, California on February 16-19, 2012. The World Conference on Women and Sport is sponsored by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was hosted by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games (SCCOG).The IOC World Conference on Women and Sport takes place every four years to examine the progress made within the Olympic movement and identify ways to improve and increase the participation of women in the world of sport. Approximately 750 participants with representation from 140 countries attended sessions devoted to leadership views on women in the world of sport, partnerships for progress, the business of sport, sustainable responsibility, Title IX, empowering women and girls through education, and growing up in a gender-balanced society. Participants included members of the media, educators, researchers, athletes, coaches, administrators, and representatives from National Olympic Committees, International and National Sport Federations, global companies, and the United Nations system. The theme for the 5th World Conference was "Together Stronger: The Future of Sport."

I am faculty in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. My research focuses on the social psychological experiences of women and girls in sport and their barriers to involvement. It is from this perspective that I write this conference review. Due to the number of concurrent sessions, I will highlight only those that I attended. A complete listing of presentations and presenters can be found at the conference website (

Thursday's Opening Ceremony began in the evening at the Nokia Center and started with video footage from the Olympic Games. As this was the first set of images presented, it was surprising that all of the images appeared to be of male Olympians, a disturbing oversight for attendance at a conference celebrating and encouraging women's involvement in sport. As Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist and conference presenter, stated in her post-conference column,
 When an opening video flickered before [conference attendees] ... it
 was an IOC highlight reel of Olympic performances, but something was
 wrong with it. It included footage of one great male athlete after
 another. There were almost no women in it. Out of 34 athletes who
 appeared in that film, there were the recognizable images of just
 four women, and they went by so quickly that many conference
 attendees didn't think there were any at all (Brennan, 2012).
 As Brennan accurately suggested,

 When you watch footage like that, as I did as a speaker at the
 conference, you have to give the IOC credit for honesty: It didn't
 even try to fake its concern for the achievements of women in sport.
 Or perhaps it is simply cluelessness; the IOC doesn't know, or
 perhaps doesn't care, about how awful that opening video looked
 (Brennan, 2012).

Welcome and opening remarks were made by Larry Probst, USOC President, Anita DeFrantz, IOC Women and Sport Commission Chair, Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles, and Jacques Rogge, IOC President. The 2012 Women and Sport Awards were then presented, with India's Manisha Malhotra winning the World Trophy for her commitment to helping disadvantaged girls progress through sport. The five continental winners included Peninnah Aligawesa Kabenge (Africa-Uganda), the Bradesco Sports and Education Progamme and Centre (Americas-Brazil), Zaiton Othman (Asia-Malaysia), Aikaterini Nafplioti-Panagopoulos (Europe-Greece), and Roseline Blake (Oceania-Cook Islands). Each recipient was recognized for her role in getting more women and girls involved in sport as athletes, administrators, leaders and members of the media (for more information on each recipient, go to

The opening ceremony concluded with a brief panel discussion with Michelle Kwan, Billie Jean King, Julie Foudy, and Manisha Malhotra. Led by Kwan, the panelists were asked why they do advocacy work for women in sport. The theme of their responses focused on "making a difference," stressing that in order to see sustainable change we must empower women. All of the panelists spoke passionately about the importance of mentorship and the need for women to help other women. Julie Foudy spoke specifically about the mentorship Billie Jean King has provided her throughout her career. Billie Jean King suggested that men and women must work together to achieve more inclusion and equality across the board, "I've had men in my life who've mentored me, who've made a difference." Furthermore, King suggested that it is the men who have the true power and are "the ones who are truly going to make change ... until we get women in positions of power."

The representation of women in positions of leadership within sport was a primary theme of the 2012 conference. As IOC President, Jacques Rogge stated, We need more women leaders throughout the Olympic Movement, not only to prove our commitment to gender equality, but to take advantage of their brains, their energy and their creativity." Almost all of the presenters discussed the need for more women in decision-making positions in the world of sport. Lord Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games, discussed the involvement of women in leadership positions in the preparations for the 2012 Games. Coe, who made it his edict to have women represent half of the London Organizing Committee employees, was especially proud to report the current figures for women in head positions for London 2012: human resources 60%, finance 59%, legal 54%, commercial 58%, sport and venue 50%, and volunteers 54%. Coe stressed that such equality is "essential for proper governance of conduct of an organization." Despite the progress, however, Coe stressed the need for continued improvement throughout all levels of sport, especially in the recruitment and mentoring of future female leaders. Lakshmi Puri, Executive Director of United Nations Women, also noted the importance of recognizing the "layers of discrimination," and the need to acknowledge differences in women across class, race, ethnicity, nationality, geographic location and ability status. She emphasized the need to see "different women working in different [leadership] capacities" in sport.

Karin Lofstrom, Executive Director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), discussed the importance of having a diverse set of leaders, suggesting that the more diverse a board, the better results they will produce (e.g., increased profits). As Lofstrom suggested, diversity brings different experiences, perspectives, knowledge, and connections. She provided practical recommendations for ways in which to increase the likelihood that women will sit in such leadership positions: (a) ensure women candidates are on all shortlists, (b) identify and support talent, (c) set-up mentoring and coaching programs, (d) ensure ongoing measurement of women's progress, and (e) include women in informal networks. In line with the conference theme, Together Stronger, Lofstrom also offered recommendations for ways in which women can help themselves and other women: (a) network--meet decision makers, (b) understand the process for selection, (c) know how to navigate the boardroom, (d) develop allies within the leadership team, (e) continue to diversity your skills and build your experience, and (f) encourage other women to get involved. Lofstrom suggested that when women are in positions of leadership, it is important to create an inclusive environment and avoid putting women in positions without giving them the support and preparation needed to succeed.

Building on Lofstrom's presentation, Friday morning began with a workshop on practical skills to be an effective leader led by Nora Sheffe, a Master Trainer for the CAAWS Women and Leadership Program. In small groups, conference attendees discussed four specific strategies to increase the number of women in positions of leadership: (a) build the pipeline (e.g., recruit women, seek out females, mentor, share information), (b) nurture your network (e.g., host meetings, attend events, stay in touch), (c) be visible and involved (e.g., become a board member, speak up, be on nominating committees), and (d) celebrate girls and women (e.g., value your contribution, celebrate women, express gratitude).

Unveiled as a new partnership for progress, Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau, introduced the Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. The mission of this initiative is to increase women and girls participation in sport and create a mentorship program that will connect women and girls from across the globe with their American counterparts ( The initiative involves a 3-prong plan including sports mentorship that brings female sport leaders from their home countries to the U.S. for a four-week sport mentoring program, sport envoys that takes retired U.S. athletes, coaches and administrators overseas to lead clinics and team-building activities, and sport visitors which gives young people the opportunity to participate in an exchange program. The initiative is based on evidence from a 2007 United Nations' report (Women 2000--Women, Gender, Equaliol and Sport) indicating the importance of sport involvement as a social and empowerment tool for women and girls.

Academy Award-winning actor, advocate, and athlete Geena Davis, and journalist and long-distance swimmer, Diana Nyad, provided a session on role models and leadership. Davis, who made it to the semi-finals of the Olympic Trials in archery in 2000, provided a detailed account of her late introduction to sport at the age of 36. Until then she had never thought of herself as being physically gifted or athletic. It was from her work in A League of Their Own that she began to realize and appreciate her physicality. As Davis suggested, "learning to play was about so much more than just gaining a skill and a technical ability. Learning to play affected how I saw myself" Since then, Davis indicated that she has been attracted to roles that were physical, learning various sports through her work in film. Another awakening occurred for Davis after having children and realizing the one-dimensional, sexualized, and stereotypical images of girls and women in children's programming. As Davis suggested, "by feeding our children these messages we are acculturating another generation in the same way."

Davis briefly highlighted some of the major findings from Messner and Cooky's (2010) research examining the television coverage of women's sports from 1989-2009. The findings indicated that men's sports received 96.3% of the airtime and women's sport only 1.6% (gender neutral-2.1%), a decline in coverage since 2004 when 6.3% of the airtime was devoted to women's sports. Davis, who is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (http://, emphasized the need to increase representation of women in the mass media. She suggested that while many perceive the situation as one that "will change with time," she urged attendees to understand the urgency for immediate action.

Diana Nyad provided a powerful and dynamic presentation, detailing her development as a swimmer and sports journalist. Her story began with a coach telling her at the age of 10 that she would be a "great swimmer one day." Nyad recalled an adolescence that was consumed with swimming. At age 14, however, Nyad was raped by her swim coach. While not the focus of her presentation, she carefully shared her emotional experience with the audience. Nyad introduced a woman in attendance at the conference that had also been raped by her coach and recently developed Safe4athletes, a nonprofit that advocates for the welfare of athletes and works to promote safe and positive sport environments that are free of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment ( Nyad also discussed her career as a sports journalist and interest in covering the "different" stories, rather than the mainstream events. Like Davis and other conference presenters, Nyad emphasized the need to increase the number of women in positions of leadership, suggesting that there was no easy route to social change.

Alan Abrahamson, international sports journalist, USC Professor and IOC Press Commission, moderated a session devoted to women, sport and the media. Christine Brennan began the session by highlighting two recent failures of the current IOC administration--the IOC's decision in 2005 to not include softball on the London 2012 program, what Brennan referred to as a "black mark" on Rogge's Presidential term, and the exclusion of women's ski jumping from the 2010 Vancouver Games. She questioned whether the IOC would be as strong on discrimination and sexism as they were on Greece not being prepared for the 2004 Games in Athens (in 2000, IOC President Jacques Rogge authored a scathing report on the Greek preparations and organization of the 2004 Games ). Molly Solomon, Coordinating Producer of NBC Olympics, suggested that 52% of NBC viewership is female and it is women who are typically responsible for bringing their families together to watch the Games at home. Solomon described the use of storytelling to help an audience connect to athletes, especially as Olympians are often athletes that viewers are less familiar. According to Solomon, one example of storytelling in which television (NBC) "got it right" was at the opening ceremony for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games when Aboriginal athlete, Cathy Freeman, lit the flame. Solomon also acknowledged that there are times when the media "doesn't get it right" (e.g., not showing the women's soccer finals in its entirety). In her presentation titled--Fashion First, Sports Second--Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley, Chair of the Women's Sport Foundation and Olympian, questioned the media's obsession with female athletes' fashion (e.g., clothing, accessories, and appearance). Fitzgerald-Mosely criticized the media's emphasis on the female athlete as model rather than athlete/performer. She suggested that the selection of appropriate sport competition and practice apparel is influenced by several factors including performance specifications (e.g., comfort, performance enhancement), medial/safety (e.g., reduce risk of injury), differences in body types, and cultural differences (e.g., some athletes refuse to participate in certain sports due to uniform requirements). Fitzgerald-Mosely specifically called into question the International Amateur Boxing Association (MBA) for its recent suggestion that female boxers be required to wear skirts during competition. Wu Ching-Kuo, President of MBA, was asked to address this requirement at the podium:
 I want to clarify what's been said over the past six months. We never
 asked women to wear skirts. We heard recommendations about this from
 national federations and boxers, and made the option. I can say
 through this discussion [at an executive meeting in Bangkok] last
 month I think we tend to go to the decision is optional.

AIBA did not make a formal announcement concerning the controversial issue; instead, it simply updated some of its rules on March 1, 2012 and posted them to its website. The new competition uniform rule states that all female boxers will wear either shorts or a skirt in the ring, and there is no mention on the length of either garment. In line with Fitzgerald-Mosley's discussion of cultural differences and sensitivity associated with athletic uniforms, one conference attendee, a female fencer from Kuwait, raised concern regarding the image associated with the conference, a white silhouette of a female pole vaulter wearing blue briefs and a sports bra. The conference attendee suggested that she would be unable to bring such an image back to her country and questioned the ethnocentrically restrictive nature of the image. The critical point, raised twice throughout the conference, was in my opinion never seriously addressed publically.

In the final plenary, Angela Ruggiero, IOC member and athlete, introduced a panel of 10 Young Ambassadors from around the world, including Croatia, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Fiji, Uruguay, Ukraine, India, and Trinidad and Tobago. This inspiring panel of young women and men spoke about their experiences at the Youth Olympic Games and about the role of women and sport in their respective countries. The panel was a positive and encouraging representation of the future of sport.

The conference ended with the 750 attendees unanimously approving "The Los Angeles Declaration" which included a series of recommendations aimed at promoting gender equality in sport and using sport as a tool to improve the lives of women around the world. The Declaration focused on two primary themes: (a) the need to bring more women into management and leadership roles, and (b) the need to increase collaboration and partnerships, especially with UN organizations, to promote gender equality. Jacques Rogge indicated that as IOC President he would act on the recommendations: "I can pledge and I can promise that we will do what is needed."


Brennan, C. (2012, February 22). IOC Still drags its feet on female equality. Retrieved May 11, 2012, from

Messner, M. A., & Cooky, C. (2010). Gender in televised sports: News and highlights shows, 1989-2009. Los Angeles, CA: USC Center for Feminist Research.

Emily A. Roper, Sam Houston State University


Emily A. Roper, Ph.D. Sam Houston State University P.O. Box 2176 Huntsville, Texas 77382


Phone: (936) 294-1169
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Title Annotation:Confrence Review
Author:Roper, Emily A.; Houston, Sam
Publication:Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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