Milestone Opportunity For Female Olympians

As we approach the 2016 Summer Olympics it brings about a sense of excitement and joy for sports you may have forgotten existed in you. Maybe you watch and play sports all the time and this is just an extra bonus, or maybe you’re not even really the “sporty type” but still get excited when you realize there are going to be televised routines that involve people dancing with ribbons. No matter what or why you watch, there is an undeniable draw to this festive sporting event, most likely because it brings us back to childhood. Back to when we got to – nay, were required to – try out all different kinds of sports and activities as part of our daily curriculum.

Ask any kid in the U.S. what their favorite subject in school is and most of them will say – recess. There may be the odd kid who says math or science is their favorite and maybe it is, but maybe they just think if they stick it out long enough they’ll learn how to become a mad scientist. And though there’s a weirdly common myth that boys are more interested in sports than girls are, it simply isn’t true. You can search and search, but there is no research to support the thought that girls just don’t want to play sports as much as boys do. There is research to show they drop out of sports sooner than boys, but that is not because of lack of interest, it is because of things like social pressure, lack of opportunity, and lack of support.

There have been many women throughout history who have broken boundaries and created huge milestone opportunities for females in the sports world. In the U.S. there were women like Violet Palmer, the first female NBA referee in 1997. Or Wilma Rudolph, the first woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics in 1950. Or Billie Jean King, a tennis phenomenon who not only won 20 Wimbledon titles in her 18-year career, but also beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” when he claimed women were inferior sports players.

Guess they’re not so inferior, Bobby.

They just need a chance. They just want to play like everyone else.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir & Tahmina Kohistani Break Barriers

But female athletes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan face different challenges. Their stepping stones to equality are much further spaced out, and have sharper edges. While there are laws ensuring girls get equal rights to sports teams and participation, like Title IX, they do not and governments, conservative family members, or a frightened communities sometime discourage them from participating.

Maria toorpakai wazir

Maria Toorpakai Wazir

But there are women taking a stand, and breaking ground for other females in these countries. Women like Maria Toorpakai Wazir of Pakistan who disguised herself as a boy so that she could play squash, even though it was forbidden for girls to play in her tribe. She cut her hair, changed her clothes and played every day until she was bloody and beat down. When people found out she was a girl, Maria was mocked and made fun of but she didn’t let it stop her and she played even harder. Eventually she resorted to practicing in her own bedroom because she was getting too many threats at the squash court and didn’t want to risk injuring innocent bystanders if something were to happen. She is now ranked 49th in the world. Because of her determination and her passion, doors are opening for other girls in Pakistan.

There’s also Tahmina Kohistani, Afghanistan’s first female Olympic track athlete who competed in 2012, and now encourages and works with the female national running team.

The Creation Of An Athlete

But Olympic-caliber athletes are not born, they are made. Many athletes begin their training at an early age or discover their passion on a playground.

Principals and headmasters in Central Asia recognize the need for safe, constructive play areas. They do their best to raise funds so their schools can have something, anything in the way of a playground to encourage childhood fun and activity.

While a few of CAI-supported schools have playgrounds, most of them are old and run down. Some just have a rusty set of monkey bars, while others have made their own volleyball courts out of old tree trunks and a ratty semblance of what used to be a net.

In the remote Tajik village of Tusyan, the principal and teachers are working with CAI-Tajikistan to refurbish a Soviet-era sports hall. The gym teacher said the children are very excited about the facility. Kids need to be active and part of something, they crave it, and when there aren’t organized sports or play they can turn toward less productive outlets. In setting up the sports hall, the school hopes to reinvigorate the village’s love of sports.

Sports and physical activity offers a break from the sit-at-your-desk book learning kids do all day long and actually enhances a child’s ability to focus and learn later on. It builds self-esteem, inspires confidence, and encourages working together as a team. In turn, kids bring these skills with them back to the classroom, and ultimately carry them with them later in life so that they have leadership skills, work productively with others in their jobs, and feel confident to try for something bigger than they may have without it.

So, while you’re watching the Olympics this summer, pay attention. Especially pay attention to the women out there. The determined women breaking records, fighting for equality, becoming leaders and examples for young girls all over the world just by trying. Just by working hard. Just by loving sports. They are the inspiration for so many.

These are the women who will make a difference to that little girl watching her TV, allowing her to dream bigger.

These are the women who will change the world.


Read more about Tahmina Kohistani

Read more about Maria Toorpakai