Across the world, women athletes are often written off and shut out. But in the face of adversity, a new generation of rule-breakers – from skate, surf and beyond – are pushing for a revolution: transforming the way we think about sport.

During her playing career, Canadian footballer Carrie Serwetnyk would never indulge in the sort of on-field theatrics often seen of the male stars. The diving, or rolling-around-in-agony at a minor injury? Not for Serwetnyk. “You have to prove you’re better, to get in with the boys!” she says. “You have to be tougher and smarter and play hard and not complain.”

Serwetnyk was a female player in a male game. In order to be taken seriously by the men – who all earned more, played to bigger crowds, and had access to better resources – she had to be just as tough. Tougher, even. And like female athletes all over the world, she had to fight against the stigmas that hold women back in the sports world today: including the idea that they aren’t resilient enough to play at the highest levels.


Women have been dismissed in the sporting world for as long as human beings have run, jumped and leapt for the benefit of audiences. The founder of the modern-day Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, refused to let women compete in the first games (Athens 1896), as he felt that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”

It wasn’t until 1900 that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time, and only then in the categories of lawn tennis and golf. It took until 2012 for women to be allowed to compete in boxing, the last Olympic sport to include them.

Why were women shut out of the highest levels of sport in this way? Because they were perceived as too physically weak, particularly when it came to endurance sports such as marathons, long-distance cycling and swimming, or weight-based activities. As de Coubertin put it: “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” And besides, back then, the “fairer sex” were meant to be decorative, not grunting in exertion and covered in sweat.

You might think that negative attitudes to women in sport are a relic of the past; blessedly consigned to the dustbin of history. But they’re not. The stereotype that women are simply too physically and mentally weak to hack it in the world of competitive sport persists to modern times.


Dismissing women athletes happens all over the world, from East to West. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the conservative authorities have traditionally suppressed female participation in sports: Saudi girls attending public schools are still prohibited from playing them, and until this year women weren’t even allowed to be spectators in sports stadiums. (They’re now allowed into stadiums, but can’t sit with men.) And as recently as 1997, Pakistani women were banned from playing sports in public.

In Japan, professional sumo wrestling still controversially excludes women from all ceremonies and competitions, with many banned from entering or even touching the ring. But sporting rebels –like Chisaki Okumura – are slowly coming together to activate change. The amateur sumo star one day hopes to join the ranks of professional sumo, and advocates for female participation in the nation’s favourite sport.

Strange rules exist in the highest levels of Western sporting competitions too. Take tennis, for example: this year, French player Alize Cornet was given a code violation for changing her T-shirt on court at the US Open. (After Cornet pointed out, quite rightly, that men were allowed to change their T-shirts on the court without being punished, officials were forced into an apology.)

In soccer, female players in the 2015 Women’s World Cup complained of a so-called “grass ceiling” after the game’s regulatory authorities decreed that they would play on artificial turf, not grass. Men got to play on grass, the female players argued, pointing out that you’re more likely to sustain injuries on turf. But despite a lawsuit from the game’s top players, FIFA triumphed, and the women were forced to compete on turf and drop their lawsuit. (Similarly, in the men’s game, nine of the 20 UK Premier League clubs don’t offer contractual maternity pay to female employees, despite it being the world’s wealthiest football league.)


It gets stranger: currently, women aren’t allowed to swim the 1500m in the Olympics, and can’t participate in the four-man bobsleigh. There’s no major women’s decathlon competition of note, and female gymnasts are only able to compete on four apparatus, compared to men, who have six events. (Women also have to perform to music, and are judged on how graceful they are, whereas men don’t have to perform to music or wear sparkly outfits to wow the judges.)

Legendary cycling race Giro d’Italia only has 10 stages in the women’s race, compared to 21 in the men’s version. It also takes place at the same time as the Tour de France, meaning that cycling enthusiasts around the world turn their TV screens to France, not Italy, denying female cyclists exposure. Women tennis players are only allowed to play three sets, as opposed to the men, who play five. In boxing, women’s fights are limited to a maximum of 10 rounds, whereas men can fight up to 12.

There’s also a huge gender pay gap – a disparity often justified by sporting authorities because the men’s game pulls in more punters than women. (It wasn’t always like this. At the start of the 21st century, women’s football was more popular than the men, with Dick Kerr’s Ladies FC regularly pulling in huge crowds.) But the reason that the men’s games pull in more crowds than women is likely because they get more airtime and coverage both in the press and on TV. Women’s sport only receives four per cent of sport media coverage, according to the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

“Things are changing massively, but it’s definitely a work in progress,” explains Professor Kath Woodward of the Open University, an expert in women’s participation in sport. “The resistance is really deep.”


But women across the world aren’t letting these rules deter them from their rightful place in sport. Female cyclists founded campaign group Le Tour Entier to fight for a women’s Tour de France, the pre-eminent cycling race in the world. They won, with La Course by Le Tour de France being held for the first time in 2014, although it still wasn’t the full three-week race the men participate in. “I’m delighted,” says Emma Pooley, one of the campaign’s founders. “It’s a great opportunity for women’s cycling.”

In Saudi Arabia, activist Baraah Luhaid uses her love of bikes as a tool for women’s empowerment. She founded Saudi Arabia’s only cycling shop, with a cafe and workshops, for women. And she’s even in the process of designing a cycling abaya so that Saudi women can cycle freely, while still obeying the country’s modesty laws and customs.

And in Cambodia – a country with an extremely young population – a home-grown, female-led skate scene thrives. Skateistan is a non-profit that teaches skateboarding to Cambodian youths. Over half of the kids that Skateistan works with are female, and the proportion of girls learning to skate increases year on year. Stars like Cambodia’s top female skater, Kov Chan Sangva, represent the nation on the international skate scene. Sangva has even skated with icons like Tony Hawk, Mimi Knoop, and Neftalie Williams. “Skating helped me to get far away from bad situations,” Sangva explained in one interview. “I have a lot of friends through it. And I’m going to use it as a tool to empower the world.”

In surfing, the World Surfing League announced this year that from 2019, women surfers will receive equal pay. It’s a huge step forward in a sport that’s slowly been reforming itself: female surfers like Stephanie Gilmore and Lakey Peterson have become bona fide stars in their own right, with lucrative sponsorship deals and glowing press coverage. “It’s a really big step, not just in terms of women’s sport, but for society,” confirms Basque surfer and Vans ambassador Ainara Aymat. “Women’s highest surfing levels haven’t reached men’s levels yet, but equal pay is really necessary for that to happen: it will help women to match them.”

There’s also a growing interest in female football. There were female commentators at this year’s World Cup for the first time, such as former England women’s star Eniola Aluko. (Although even Aluko faced sexism, after her co-pundit Patrice Evra’s decision to applaud her on-air commentary was roundly criticised on social media for being patronising.) At the beginning of December, 23-year-old Norway striker Ada Hegerberg made history by winning the inaugural Women’s Ballon d'Or award (before the moment was overshadowed when host Martin Solveig asked if she knew “how to twerk”).


When the resistance against women is organised and well-entrenched, there’s only one way to overcome it: by setting up your own networks, to beat it at its own game. Serwetnyk runs a programme called Equal Play, which teaches girls how to play soccer in elementary schools. “It’s not just a programme about soccer, it’s a programme about self-confidence,” she explains. Serwetnyk was inspired to start the initiative after realising that girls and women were being used in marketing materials by the major soccer clubs, but the female game was always the first thing to get cut when profits slip.

There’s still a long way to go. One report conducted by Women in Sport this year found that 38 per cent of women in sport have experienced gender-based discrimination in the workplace. But things are improving.

“It’s taken way too long, but it’s happening,” confirms Serwetnyk, who has since retired from the professional game. “I know I was a brilliant player and missed out in having good coaching and opportunities,” she says, with a touch of sadness.

Thankfully, the next generation of young girls and women won’t have to fight as much as she did for her right to exist: “If anyone played now, they’d have it a million times better than we did at the time.”

Find more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.