03 Aug, 2016 Last updated: 17 Dec, 2018

In the countdown to Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony in Rio, our female athletes have already won gold in the eyes of so many inspired Aussie women and girls, myself included.

First published on Women's Agenda, 3 August 2016.

In the countdown to Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony in Rio, our female athletes have already won gold in the eyes of so many inspired Aussie women and girls, myself included.

We need to remember the progress we’ve made since the early Olympics, when a young Fanny Durack stuck to her guns and eventually convinced the NSW authorities to allow her to attend the first ever women’s Olympic swimming competition at Stockholm in 1912.

Jerril Rechter

There, Fanny went on to become a swimming champion. She set a new 100m freestyle world record, and became the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a swimming event. 

In 1996, Nova Peris-Kneebone became the first Aboriginal Olympic gold medallist, and who could forget when Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron and took gold at Sydney in 2000 in the 400m sprint. 

In London 2012, we saw every competing country represented by at least one female athlete.

In 2016, Australia can proudly say that for the first time ever, the scales have tipped in favour of our women, with more than half of our summer Olympic team represented by females.  It’s also pleasing to see women in leadership roles in this year’s Olympic team, including our flag bearer Anna Meares, our Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller, coaches and commentators. It sends a positive message to Australian women and demonstrates the variety of roles we can play within sport. 

This is indeed a triumph. It’s a triumph that continues the rising wave of women’s sport in Australia. In the last 12 months alone we’ve seen the success of the Women’s Big Bash Cricket League, the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, and the announcement of the AFL women’s league.

It’s examples like these, showing that women really can share an equal part of the Australian sporting stage as men, that will inspire women across Australia to get out there and get active. 

However, inspiration alone isn’t enough. Our research shows that while women want to be more physically active, they don’t have the same opportunities, and they experience more barriers than men.

Championing female participation in sport is a key pillar of VicHealth’s work. By highlighting the important role women all over Victoria and Australia play in sports leadership, management, media and as professional athletes, we hope to meaningfully add to the growing gender equality in sport movement that many organisations are a part of. 

That’s why over the next three years, gender will be a key area of work for VicHealth, with a focus on building gender equality in the community through sport. 

VicHealth’s Changing the Game program is a great example of this. It’s creating more opportunities to participate, and it encourages women and girls who don’t normally participate in organised sport to try something new – activities designed specifically for women. 

We’ve funded six sporting codes to develop innovative, flexible sports programs that are more appealing to women and girls who don’t normally participate in traditional sports offered through clubs and competitions.

Looking abroad, Sport England really hits the nail on the head with This Girl Can, a campaign to get women and girls moving, ‘regardless of shape, size and ability’. It tells women to ignore fear of judgement and not let barriers hold them back. It shows the benefits of getting active in an encouraging, humorous, and realistic light, and demonstrates the societal need for a change in attitudes and a boost to women’s confidence. This Girl Can resulted in 2.8 million inactive women and girls playing sport. 

While we’ve certainly come a long way, there’s still much work to be done before we achieve gender equality in sport in Australia. From the pay gap between female and male athletes remaining high, to the fact many sporting clubs don’t yet offer women their own changing rooms – the Victorian Government has taken a lead by offering grants of up to $100,000 for sports clubs to improve their female-friendly facilities - the wave of change still has some momentum to gather. 

It’s a wave we should all be excited about and proud to ride.   

But today, I’m excited for our incredibly strong female athletes as they head to Rio and I wish them every success. You have already made Australia proud.

- Jerril 

Jerril Rechter is CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth)