Gender Issues in Handball (Part 1 – Background)

Did you notice that there was a worldwide celebration of International Women’s Day earlier this week? And did you realize that it was the 100th anniversary of this event?

Superficially, one might think that we have gender equality in handball; after all, at the international level we have the same events for both men and women, and we now finally after years of struggle also have the same number of men’s and women’s teams playing in the Olympics. But I really do not think that this suggests we do not have any issues!

In fact, I continue to be surprised that one hears relatively little debate about gender issues in our sport. Is there not much discussion going on, or is just not loud enough? Through this article and a second part in the near future, I would want to [u]encourage more debate[/u]. Because surely there are realities that give us reason to have opinions and to discuss ways of improving. For instance:

— Why is the spectator interest in women’s handball much smaller than that for men’s handball in the large majority of countries?

— Why are most top level women’s teams coached by men, while it is almost unthinkable to see men’s teams coached by women?

— Why is there only 1 woman among 17 persons on the IHF Council (and why is the situation almost as bad in many national federations)?

— Why do the newspapers and web pages tend to write so much less about women’s handball compared with men’s handball?

— Why are the top women’s players of the world paid clearly less than the top men’s players?

— Why are there so few women referees at both the international level and in most national federations?

— Why do more sponsors seem to prefer to support men’s clubs and men’s championships instead of women’s clubs and women’s events?

— Why, in the current discussion about the international competition calendar and the excessive demands on the players, is all the focus on the men’s side?

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Gender issues in sports tend to be a reflection of gender issues in society at large: the continuing impact of traditions, concerns about unequal opportunities, biases in evaluation and appreciation of performances, limited participation in governance, prejudices in public opinion and in media treatment etc.

However, one might think that gender issues in sports should be less dramatic or less serious than in other aspects of life, because in sports they do not involve matters of life and death, they do not involve violence and abuse, and they do not typically involve fundamental human rights.

But there are reasons why gender issues may, in fact, be seen as more sensitive in sports than elsewhere. To some extent this may be because there are expectations regarding sports that are not quite realistic. As an analogy, people who view corruption or unfairness as a normal, albeit regrettable, part of life in politics and business, somehow are almost unwilling to believe that sport is not free from similar attitudes and behaviors. In other words, people expect sports to be above what is the norm elsewhere.

Another consideration is that when one discusses gender issues in sports, it is natural (or almost inevitable) to think of it in an international context. After all, many decisions that impact participants in sports at the national or local level are taken at a higher, i.e., global level. And there are many aspects, e.g., culture or religion, directly affecting the gender issues, which are viewed very differently in different environments. What is a ‘hot issue’ for some may be normal and uncontroversial to another group.

Also, in business and politics the decision-makers and the key ‘players’ tend to be from the same generation. In sports, the key players, the athletes, are often one, or even two, generations removed from the top decision-makers. So how can one expect that the viewpoints of the two groups are the same!?

After these statements as background, you may believe that I am about to enter into a lengthy ‘philosophical’ discussion that will make you want to tune out quickly. But that is not the case. However, before I stop for the moment: I venture to believe that in handball we [u]should[/u] be better off than some other sports. We do not have the problems of icehockey (not enough top countries), ski jumping (too new and not enough athletes yet), or softball (inadequate global coverage). In fact, we are well ahead of football/soccer and basketball, in terms of longstanding traditions for the women’s game.

Also, we are not one of those sports that need to adapt its entire format or its basic rules to suit the women. All that differs in handball is the size of the ball. There is nothing about handball that makes it a ‘strange’ sport for women, and it is not the type of sport, like swimming or track & field (athletics), where measurable results could imply that the women’s game is inferior. A high-quality and evenly matched women’s game is just as exciting.

I will give you a few days to think about your experience and ideas regarding gender issues in handball. Then, in Part 2, you will hear from a number of women with different roles in handball (and also some men…) about their views on issues and possible solutions. And in the meantime, it would be really nice if some of you decided to volunteer [u]your[/u] input!!!

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