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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Canada’s women lead charge to Olympic podium in Tokyo, as they did in Rio

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TOKYO — Images of Canadian women adorned with Olympic hardware in Tokyo could help counterbalance some disturbing trends for female sport at home.

The distaff side of Canada’s Olympic team generated the country’s first nine Olympic medals in Japan to continue a trend from 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Women produced the first dozen medals in Rio, including the first two gold. They accounted for 16 of the country’s total of 22 there.

Nine medals in the four days following Tokyo’s opening ceremony has, once again, set a cracking pace.

Swimmer Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., and weightlifter Maude Charron of Rimouski, Que., won Canada’s first two gold medals.

“We’ve just got badass chicks,” men’s rower Will Crothers said.

The Canadian team in Tokyo has more females than males — 226 of the country’s 371 competitors are women.

Women hold down two of the most powerful positions in the high-performance sport system — Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith and Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger.

Canada’s more progressive attitude toward women in sport relative to other parts of the world is manifest in Olympic Games, said the team’s chef de mission in Tokyo.

“We are also from a culture that values equality,” Marnie McBean said. “Increasingly, we’re giving ice time and field time and court time more equally — I’ll go with more equally.

“We’ve got 206 countries here and I would say maybe the majority of them don’t feel the same we do.”

But it’s not an entirely rosy picture for female sport in Canada.

Canadian Women and Sport, formerly the Canadian Association for Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), published a study in 2016 that concluded 41 per cent of Canadian girls between three and 17 don’t participate in sport. Non-participation jumped to 84 per cent in adult women.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified barriers and inertia, according to the results of another study published earlier this month by the same organization.

One in four Canadian girls who participated in sport at least once a week before the pandemic weren’t committed to returning, CWS said. That’s approximately 350,000 girls.

“Before COVID-19, sport participation statistics showed that fewer girls participated in sport compared to boys,” the study said. “Girls experienced unique barriers to sport. Once COVID-19 hit, it negatively impacted participation in sport for over 90 per cent of girls through closed facilities, sidelined in-person coaching, and stunted social connections.

“The pandemic fortified the top barriers and eroded the benefits to participation in sport as reported by girls prior to the pandemic.”

Women collecting medals in swimming, judo, softball, diving and weightlifting so far in Tokyo could kick-start dreams and inspire girls to get in the pool and on the field, said softball pitcher Sara Groenewegen.

“The success that women are having, I think kids back home — especially little girls — are going to see that on TV and be like, ‘Hey, why not me? Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I accomplish that?’

“So I think the visibility of the success is really key in growing sport in our country. It’s something awesome to be a part of.”

Penny Oleksiak’s bronze in the 200-metre freestyle Wednesday was the women’s swim team’s fourth medal in Tokyo and the sixth of her career.

The 21-year-old from Toronto anchored the 4×100 women’s freestyle relay to silver for Canada’s best result ever in the event.

Swimming Canada has invested, with the help of dedicated funding from Own The Podium, specifically in women’s relays. Since 2014, the organization has staged Relay Takeoff Camps for girls aged 13 to 15.

The women who stand on the podium in Tokyo will be ambassadors of sport for the next generation of girls, but it takes a village, province and country to provide opportunities in the form of programs, coaches and facilities for both girls and boys, said Canadian Olympic Committee chief sport officer Eric Myles.

“Those women will for sure have an impact, but not just by themselves,” Myles said. “It’s a community that offers good services and quality services to these people. That’s what Canada is all about.

“That’s what I like about the diversity of our medals, where they’re coming and more to come. That shows more and more about who we are in Canada now. That goes beyond just male and female. It is for us to use this correctly and leverage those results.”

— Joshua Clipperton and Gregory Strong contributed to this story.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.

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