All it took for Olympic moguls champion Jennifer Heil to get into sports was a Sports Illustrated cover at an Edmonton gas station 28 years ago.
She was out running around doing errands with her mother in the summer of 1992 when a photo of American heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee caught her eye.
“It sold me,” Heil said about SI’s Barcelona Olympic preview issue. “A woman on the cover doing her sport and the focus on her face. She was the whole package. It was her body, her fierce determination. Right then I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics. I just had to go out and find a sport.”
Of the 52 issues Sports Illustrated published that year, just four featured women on the cover. But only one — that of Joyner-Kersee — showed a woman actually performing her sport. It was enough to ignite a dream in nine-year-old Heil.
So imagine what it will be like for young Canadian women to see themselves on a daily basis.
CBC Sports is aiming to do just that. On the eve of International Women’s Day, the network is committing to gender-balanced sports coverage across all of its platforms.
“We’re committed to providing audiences with equal opportunity to watch, read about, meet and hear from female sporting heroes and as a result, allow more young women to visualize themselves achieving great things through sport,” said Chris Wilson, CBC’s executive director of Sports and Olympics.
In addition to the weekly broadcast of Road to the Olympic Games, the commitment will be reflected through digital streams, online articles at CBCSports.ca and social media content.
Wilson said this priority has already become a decision-making tool for the events they acquire and which stories they pursue, as well as their hiring and professional development going forward.
“This is really significant,” said Heil, who also serves as a CBC Olympics freestyle skiing analyst and special advisor to viaSport BC.
“Small signals over a lifetime can make a big impact. And this is not a small signal. As a girl, to see yourself [on TV, on the web], day to day or week to week, it will become the new normal.”
Gender disparity in sport coverage
According to a 2016 report put out by Canadian Women & Sport, an analysis of Canada’s primary national sports networks in 2014 (both French and English) showed that men’s sport coverage significantly outweighed that of women’s coverage.
Of approximately 35,000 hours of sports programming, only four per cent featured women’s sports, with approximately 11 per cent of the coverage devoted to sport that featured both genders (something like figure skating or equestrian, for example).
And that was an Olympic year.
That same report suggests girls’ participation in sport drops by 22 per cent when they hit teenage years. That means one quarter of every soccer team, hockey team or swim team quits during those impressionable adolescent years.
As for why, some of the contributing factors include peer influence, lack of social support, encouragement, funding, positive role models and self-confidence.
That seeps into adulthood. In fact, 84 per cent of adult women don’t participate in sport at all.
“One of the critical pieces to keeping girls in sport is representation,” Heil said. “Making them more visible will help address that.”
The announcement comes following the launch of CBC Sports’ “I Commit” digital campaign, an initiative in partnership with Canadian Women & Sport that asks audiences to increase their support of girls in sport by making their own commitments to enacting change, posting them to social media and challenging friends, colleagues and organizations to do the same.