A maybe not so surprising though still quite disappointing fact from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): though women make up roughly 40% of athletes, they get only a small percentage of media coverage—4%. This broad refusal to acknowledge the power of women in sports has all kinds of consequences, from less recognition and fewer fans to subsequently more limited opportunities. Women in sports are considered to be outside of its realm—they are frequently described as “female athletes” while men just get to simply be “athletes,” no qualifier necessary.
I think often of this exchange between tennis player Roger Federer and Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Gay. In conversation, Federer told Gay that fellow tennis player Serena Williams is the greatest of all time—full stop. But Gay needed clarification:
Gay: "I have to ask: Did Federer, considered by some to be the tennis GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), just suggest Serena was the GOAT? Did he mean GOAT on the women's side—or overall?”
Here’s another disappointing fact from UNESCO: only 12% of sports news is presented by women. Can you imagine a woman asking Federer the question posed to him by Jason Gay? This imbalance especially hurts women in sports and the young girls and women who look up to them, those who are looking for an example to follow and an inclination of the kind of life they, too, might lead. It’s why the work of those who are increasing air time for women in sports, ultimately expanding their opportunities, is vital—it provides essential visibility both for these athletes and those who grow up looking to them for inspiration. We need more representation for women in sports, and a big part of it comes down to who is telling the story.
Like Ysaora Thibus.
Thibus is a French Olympic fencer and the founder of EssentiElle Stories, an Instagram account that provides a platform for women in sports from around the world to speak of their experiences. It also gives its audience a look at surprising facts and stats, historical details—and progress. For instance, intel from an Instagram post on July 18—just days before the Tokyo Olympics began:
“In 1922, the “Women’s World Games” debuted as a platform for women to prove to the International Olympic Committee that they should be able to compete in more than just a few events. This year, women will be able to compete in events previously only open to men, as well as alongside men in new sports, such as surfing and karate,” the caption reads.
“I started EssentiElle Stories because I was fed up,” Thibus told me. “The media were talking about the same thing... about all these same men’s stories in sports media. There are so many stories about female athletes by now and they need to be told.”
“I started it with my friends that are Olympic champions or World champions,” continued Thibus, “Also, when a woman wins, it’s always the same questions! and there's so much more to say. We don't talk about the specificities of what it means to be a woman in sports, how it is difficult, or maybe what challenges they have and how they overcame it, you know? And I think it's important to see that and to inspire the next generation.”
Thibus speaks and reports from experience as an athlete who was told she was “too sensitive,” to make it, too emotional, or maddeningly, “that a man could do it but I couldn’t.” But she was able to capture those doubts and turn them into motivation.
She has medaled at ten World Cup competitions, four Grand Prix, and six World Championships—wouldn’t you say those medals speak for themselves?
Listen to Ysaora Thibus—who competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (happening in 2021 due to Covid delays)—speak on what needs to change for women in sports in the latest episode of To The People podcast, available wherever you listen.