Female Olympic champions call for fairer playing field in women’s sport
Canadian hockey champion Natalie Spooner and curling champion Jennifer Jones open up about the obstacles they faced as female athletes and the inequalities that exist between women’s and men’s sport
Before Jennifer Jones was a curling queen, she was a Winnipeg teen whose girlfriends abruptly quit sports.
The girls were at the age when body insecurities took hold, and with so few athletic female role models to look up to, it was easy to slip away from athletics. But Jones stuck with sport — aspiring to be like the men, by default — and now, the 40-year-old mom, corporate lawyer and Olympian hopes she has become the female role model she and her friends never had.
“The biggest honour is when (girls) say they want to be you one day. They tell you you’re their role model,” Jones told the Star Monday on a visit to the newsroom. “You’re actually impacting someone’s life and you want to set a good example for them.”
It’s easy to see why Jones is so passionate — curling changed her life.
“I suffered from, maybe a lack of confidence, to being super insecure and no self esteem,” she said. “And then I became a part of this amazing team and you feel like you can conquer anything.”
This week, Jones joins a handful of other Olympians, including bobsledder Kaillie Humphries and hockey champion Natalie Spooner, as partners in a multi-year, women-in-sport strategy called Fuelling Women Champions. Spearheaded by Dairy Farmers of Canada, the initiative will support female athletes by filling seats at women’s sporting events through giveaways and promotions, securing increased TV exposure and introducing young girls to top athletes at sports clinics and events.
From Jones’ perspective, she has already seen a “tremendous” shift in public support for women’s sport, particularly curling, over the past decade.
In Canada, men’s and women’s curling increasingly draw comparable TV viewership numbers and win comparable cash prizes at events, said Jones. Women’s recognition also soared after the Canadians won silver in the Vancouver Olympics and gold at Sochi, making skips like Cheryl Bernard and Jones household names.
But there’s still room for improvement.
“We’ve been on the forefront of Canadian news, and the Canadian public has seen what Canadian female athletes can do, and the pride and the patriotism behind that, it’s just infectious. But we have to keep that momentum going,” said Jones.
And while the gaps between support for women and men in sports like curling shrink, they remain glaring in others.
For instance, while NHL hockey stars earn millions, their female counterparts in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) earn nothing.
“It’s crazy because I do the exact same training as them,” said Natalie Spooner, an Olympic gold medallist,Amazing Race contestant and CWHL player who trains with NHLers in the summer. “There’s so much talent in women’s sport. So why isn’t it being watched and why aren’t people coming to support us?”
Spooner, 24, relishes being a role model for young girls, like Cassie Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser were for her, but she also wants to see the landscape change for the next generation of female stars.
“We’ll hopefully eventually make the league sustainable to be able to pay their players, so little girls can say, ‘I’m going to play in the CHWL when I’m older,’ and it could be a career, not just a passion for them,’” she said.
Jones wants the same thing for her 2½-year old daughter, Isabella, whose father is Jones’ fiancé and fellow champion curler, Brent Laing.
“I want her to have every opportunity imaginable,” said Jones. “I want her to go out there and chase her dreams and I want her to feel . . . that nobody’s going to tell her she can’t.”
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