It has been an exciting year in women’s athletics, especially for Canadian fans. Women’s sports took a big hit with the pandemic. Despite a slower return than for men, looking back on only the past couple of months we’re reminded they’re back and are sending a message. A historic summer saw women dominating the headlines and captivating the country to tune in.
It started with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games in July and August. Canadians dominated in the pool at both games. Penny Oleksiak became the most decorated Olympian of all time. Maggie Mac Neil was just named the Best Female Athlete of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. Aurélie Rivard won five medals, including two gold.
Of the 24 medals Canada won at the Olympics, 18 were won in women's events (starting with 13 straight). In the Paralympics, Canada won a total 21 medals, of which 11 were won by women. Despite barriers, women continued to dominate across many areas of competition.
Medals were also won in judo, cycling, weightlifting, rowing, canoeing, and diving. Canada medaled for the first time in softball when the team won bronze. And it was a glorious gold medal finish for the Canadian soccer team after bronze in London (2012) and Rio (2016). As reported on Twitter by two-time Olympian and CBC sports analyst and host Anastasia Bucsis, "A peak TV audience of 4.4 million watched live on CBC to cheer on the Canadian women’s soccer team’s historic gold medal win, with an additional 725,000 live video views on digital platforms, making this Canada’s most-watched moment of Tokyo 2020."
That was just the start.
After an 18 month hiatus, professional women’s hockey returned when Calgary hosted the IIHF Women’s Worlds in August. Canada held strong through the preliminary round with its focus on gold. Undefeated, it was no surprise to see a Canada-USA matchup for the final. After beating Team USA in the Preliminary round, the Canadian team was hungry for their first gold medal since 2012. Captain Marie-Philip Poulin netted the winning goal in overtime.
Could it get any more exciting?
Enter 19-year-old tennis star Leylah Fernandez. She entered the U.S. Open tournament ranked 73rd in the world and went on a captivating run, becoming the second Canadian woman to reach the final after Bianca Andrescu won it all in 2019. Despite losing to 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, the two teenagers captured the world’s attention. Over 2.4 million unique viewers tuned in on ESPN and 1.1 million in Canada, attracting more than the men’s final.
One can only hope for the success at this level to positively impact the future of athletics in Canada. And it came at a crucial time. A study released by the Canadian Women & Sport and E-Alliance found one in four girls (ages 6-18) who participated in sport at least once a week before COVID-19 has not committed to returning. This could equate to 350,000 Canadian girls.
The pandemic has only heightened the top barriers that girls reported before COVID-19. Of these were access to facilities and programs, quality of programs and lack of programs, cost, and lack of confidence.
If we’re going to find ways to prevent this crisis, representation needs to be at the forefront. Girls need to see role models to who they can relate to. Fans are tuning in and supporting women in sport. Let's take this momentum we’re witnessing to help build up better programming and investment. To empower women. There is limitless room for growth.