WomenSport International Newsletter

Global Voice of Research-Based Advocacy for Women's Sport

August 2021

Message from the President: August 2021

These are exciting times for women in sport. The just-concluded Tokyo Olympics hit 49 percent in female athlete representation, with the Paralympics aiming for 50 percent for both female athletes and officials. These numbers demonstrate the concerted effort by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC), the IOC, and the IPC to move gender equity forward at the Games. Join WomenSport International’s August 28 webinar, “Gender Equality in Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” to learn more.

During Tokyo 2020, iconic athletes made amazing efforts to manage their needs. Simone Biles opened up about mental health issues. Allyson Felix, partnering with Athleta and the Women Sport Foundation, announced a $200,000 USD fund for child care costs to support mothers competing at the Olympics. Meanwhile, thanks to athlete advocacy, TOOC reversed its original decision and allowed nursing mother athletes to bring their babies with them to the Olympics.

Women’s achievements took centre stage at these Games, despite the funding gaps between female athletes and their male counterparts. For the first time, the U.S., Australia, Britain, Canada, and China sent teams with more women than men. Of China’s 88 medals, 47 were won by women athletes. For Canada, it was 18 of 24 medals; for Jamaica, seven of nine; and for the Netherlands, 21 of 36. Hopefully this will lead to more sponsorship and financial support for female athletes.

Despite these breakthrough accomplishments, achieving a more equitable sport sector still requires much work. WSI continues to review the gaps and highlight discrepancies, challenges, and actions needed to help women and girls participate more fully in sport.

The long-awaited Global Observatory for Women, Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity launched on July 9. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Observatory is supported by UNESCO and Swiss authorities, including the Canton of Vaud, the City of Lausanne, and the University of Lausanne. The process of creating the Observatory began at the Fourth International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport (MINEPS IV) in 2003. It was confirmed in 2017 at MINEPS VI, within the framework of the Kazan Action Plan (KAP). The Observatory seeks to overcome global and systemic inequalities for girls and women in sport, with plans to support the advancement of quantitative and qualitative research on women’s sport.

In partnership with the International Work Group for Women and Sport (IWG), the International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women (IAPESGW) and UNESCO, two members of the WSI Board helped to conduct the feasibility study that led to the Observatory’s launch. WSI is happy to have played a key role in the Observatory’s development since 2003, and looks forward to building its bright future.

Finally, on a personal note as a Canadian, I must salute the success of the Canadian women’s soccer team. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the broadcast of the women’s soccer team winning the gold medal drew 4.4 million viewers and was Canada’s most watched Olympic moment.

Please enjoy our August newsletter, including assistant editor Peri Sheinin’s in-depth interview with Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and athletes’ rights advocate who focuses on gender issues in sports. We welcome article submissions and requests, directed to editor-in-chief Lucas Aykroyd (lucasaykroyd@yahoo.com), for future newsletters.

Diane Huffman

President, WomenSport International

Big picture

WSI News

The WSI Communication and Membership Committee is hosting a series of webinars for our members and others in our community. With this programming, the committee aims to enable everyone to discuss topics related to women in sport and take positive actions.

On August 28, WSI is hosting a webinar on “Gender Equality in Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.” Our guest speaker for the event is Ms. Naoko Imoto, an advisor to the Gender Equality Promotion Team in the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee. Click here for more details and join us for the event!

Are you still considering WSI membership? Click here to join! Your membership will help to promote research-based advocacy for women in sport. Membership benefits include:

  • Access to an international network of experts for sharing research, information, ideas, good practices, and actions taken

  • Communication regarding research-based strategies to enhance gender equity practices in sport industries

  • Support to enhance opportunities and create change for girls and women in sport and physical activity

  • Invitations to WSI functions at major international conferences

Kanae Haneishi

Secretary General, WomenSport International

Big picture

Advocate Spotlight: Dr. Payoshni Mitra

Dr. Payoshni Mitra has come a long way since first making her mark as a badminton player. As her Birbeck (University of London) instructor’s biography notes: “She is an Athletes’ Rights advocate and scholar who has more than ten years’ experience of working closely with women athletes. Her work focuses on the mental and physical harm caused by the Differences in sex development (DSD) regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and its predecessors. Payoshni was instrumental in helping Indian athlete Ms. Dutee Chand challenge the Hyperandrogenism Regulations at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2014-2015, as the Government-appointed advisor to Chand. She was also one of the ten-member expert team who testified for South African athlete Caster Semenya at the CAS.”

Assistant WSI newsletter editor Peri Sheinin caught up with Dr. Mitra recently.

Peri: How did you get involved in badminton and the sports world?

Payoshni: In India, at the time when I was growing up, not many girls played sport. My father loved sport, played sport, and we used to watch a lot of sport as young girls. And at some point, I played with my dad, but it was not really professional. Nobody thought of putting us in serious coaching or anything. And then I was sent to a dance school. But there was a time when I got abused by my dance teacher’s husband, and after that I decided not to go back. I didn’t talk about it to my parents, but I didn’t want to go back. And that was when I was 9 and that is when I said I wanted to play a sport. And I started playing badminton when I was around 10.

Peri: What happened next?

Payoshni: In dancing, we used to keep longer hair. So I cut my hair really short. Like really, really short. I also used to wear shorts, which wasn’t something that girls would wear in those days in India. So I was often mistaken for a boy. In public transport, we had reserved seats for women. They would call them ladies’ seats. And women would tell me to get up because they would think I was a boy.

I came to sport because I felt sport would provide me with a safe space. If I was a sports person, I would have a different kind of body image, which would protect me from the male gaze and male touch. That is why I did not return to my dance school, where I was really good at dancing. Everyone was shocked that I decided not to go back. But I did not tell anybody why I did not go back. That was my entry into the sporting world, in search of a safe space.

Peri: Do you think you found a safe space in sport?

Payoshni: I did not. I found a coach who was both verbally and physically abusive. And around the age of 15, I wasn’t enjoying sport anymore. But I ended up going back to sport to represent my university for three years. But even within the university, you constantly saw the differences between girls’ and boys’ sports. For example, we qualified for Nationals. The boys’ team did not qualify so the university did not book our tickets to the tournament. We fought very hard for a chance to play. All these experiences convinced me to pursue a PhD in sport. No one was doing this work at that time.

While I was in the US, in 2006, Santhi Soundarajan’s case happened. Soundarajan is an Indian athlete who was sex tested in the Asian Games in 2006. And then her medal was taken away.

Peri: In 2006, you came to the United States to intern with the Women’s Sports Foundation. How did that work impact your career?

Payoshni: I worked in research for the education department under the supervision of Dr. Marj Snyder. I was already in the first year of my PhD and my PhD supervisors, Professor Supriya Chaudhuri and Dr. Laila Das, were kind enough to let me work at the Foundation for seven months. At the time, there was not much information on the Internet, so I had to come to America and use the materials from the Women’s Sports Foundation archive. This work helped me grow my perspective. When I arrived, we had our welcome meeting and everyone asked, “What is your sport?” And our team was mostly girls. The fact that each of us could say “This is my sport…” was lovely. Even though I came from India and was the only international intern, I could also say I had a sport.

Peri: What did you do next?

Payoshni: I received my doctoral degree in 2009, the year Caster Semenya won her first World Championships in Berlin, causing a lot of stir. In 2010, I decided to interview Santhi. At heart, I have always been an activist. So the interview wasn’t just about research or making a short documentary. We started writing letters and doing some work together. Then another case happened in Calcutta. Pinki Paramanik, who was retired at the time, was accused of rape by a woman. That case led to questions about her gender. And I suddenly realized a lot needed to be addressed. There was no space in the popular imagination for women with high testosterone or women with variations of sex characteristics. I decided to stay in India and pursue that work.

In 2014, when Dutee Chand was banned, I went to meet her immediately after. Eventually the Indian government appointed me as Chand’s advisor-cum-mediator. I was connected with scholars and advocates interested in this issue across the world, such as Professor Bruce Kidd and Dr. Katrina Karkazis. Together, we started to plan for Dutee Chand’s case. It was quite something to convince the government to provide supporting costs for the case. We ended up going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And that was the first time an athlete challenged the regulations at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which was huge. Nobody thought we would win, but we got a favorable decision in 2015. And for the first time in 2016, at the Rio Olympics, there were no sex testing policies… because we won that case.

Peri: What have you been working on since that case?

Payoshni: In 2018, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced its new Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) regulations, Dutee and I contacted Caster Semenya and offered to connect her to Canadian lawyers Jim Bunting and Carlos Sayao, who represented Chand. Caster Semenya is exceptional and is fighting a huge battle. Since then, I have started working with several athletes across Africa. During Caster’s case, I felt that I didn’t do enough. I didn’t have any funds. Also, I got pregnant right after Chand’s decision and gave birth in 2016. This slowed down my work. But I wished I had done more, so I restarted that work. Thankfully, Human Rights Watch agreed to partner with Dr. Katrina Karkazis and me to write a report. This piece was published in December 2020 and is the most comprehensive report on lived experiences of women athletes with variations of sex characteristics ever written.

It’s a tough battle. You are fighting big federations that have a lot of money and resources. And you’re coming in with hardly any resources. And it’s much harder for athletes from the global south to come in and appeal. But these things were not happening 10 years back when we started, so we did something right.

Now, athletes are opening up. Ugandan athlete Annet Negesa was coerced to do a surgery without informed consent in 2012 and was left without support afterwards. Athletes like Chand, Semenya and Negesa are sending a clear message to younger athletes who are in similar situations. And the next generation can probably be better informed before they make any life-changing decisions. Many people think that athletes are at the center of the sporting ecosystem. It’s not the case. Being a dropout myself, I understand that. We need to write less about athletes who are doing well and more about athletes who are dropping out. The day we can understand why people are dropping out, we will be able to make sport a better place.

Peri: You have paved such an incredible journey as a pioneer in your field.

Payoshni: My work would not have been possible without great allies. We have been able to create those collectives across nations, between athletes, coaches, experts, scholars, advocates, legal experts, lawyers, and the media. The media played an important role. The scrutiny was focused on women’s bodies from the global south but now it has shifted. We have started scrutinizing the federations and forcing them to be accountable. Sport should not cause harm. Safety and inclusion must be central to sport. And sport governing bodies must respect the human rights of all athletes. That work is ongoing and I am grateful to have incredible allies.

Big picture

Professional Opportunities

The Gist: Regional Content Contributor

Women’s Sports Foundation: Development Assistant

Just Women's Sports: Senior Director of Digital Strategy

NWSL: Graphic Designer