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Canada’s female sports leaders are setting the pace on global stage


Canada\'s female sports leaders are setting the pace on global stage

TORONTO – Michele O’Keefe has climbed to heights few women in international sport have reached, as the president and CEO of Canada Basketball.

Yet when she was coaching a club basketball team in Burlington, Ont., a couple of years ago, referees approaching her bench would make a beeline for her assistant coach, a man.

Tuesday marked International Women’s Day, and Canadian women in sport can celebrate a time unlike any other.

Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian in rowing, is the new CEO and president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, taking over an organization whose reputation was left in tatters amid sexual harassment allegations levelled at former president Marcel Aubut.

Carla Qualtrough, a two-time Paralympic medallist in swimming, is Canada’s new sport minister. Anne Merklinger is the CEO of Own the Podium. Karen O’Neill is the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“It’s certainly something whose time has come,” Qualtrough said.

The gender landscape in sports in Canada, however, continues to mimic O’Keefe’s experience — there’s still work to do, but it’s headed in the right direction.

“I think women in sport has come such a long way, we have women as great examples, inspiring other women,” said Chantal Petitclerc, Canada’s chef de mission for the Rio Paralympics. “But when you look at numbers, we’re still so far behind in women coaches for example, and women as high performance directors, so we still have a lot to do. But it’s going in the right direction, so that’s good.”

The bad news, according to a report released Monday called “Women in Sport: Fuelling a Lifetime of Participation, The Status of Female Sport Participation in Canada,” is that girls drop out of sports when they reach adolescence at alarming rates.

The study found that 59 per cent of girls between three and 17-years-old participate in sport, but as they enter adolescence, their rate drops by 22 per cent, and by almost 26 per cent in school sport.

Since the early 1990s, the rate of sport participation among females over 15 has steadily decreased to record lows.

“Six times more girls than boys will quit sport,” said Petitclerc, who was among the publication’s advisory group. “To me this was a big number. Why is it six times more girls than boys? Clearly it can’t be genetics, so it’s got to be that we don’t provide them with what they need to nurture their passion for sport. And I think that’s key, we need to analyze why is it that girls want to do sport, why is it that they stop?”

It’s not for a shortage of role models. Just as Canada’s women’s soccer team captured the country’s imagination in their bronze-medal run four years ago in London, Canada’s female athletes will compete in the spotlight this summer at the Rio Olympics. […]

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