These iconic female athletes are ready to ‘fight for the future of girls in sport’

Adidas event lond
The icons came together at the adidas Future of Sport event in London (Picture: Dave Benett)

Women’s sport has continued to skyrocket in popularity over the last decade – and public enthusiasm is showing no signs of dwindling.

This summer we saw record viewing figures for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, sell-out crowds at the Netball World Cup in Liverpool, and our home-grown female athletes have got used to standing on podiums – Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson are both in the running for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

These women have the momentum; they have more media coverage, more hours on TV, more household names in their respective sports than ever before. But there is still work to be done.

Despite the positive steps forward, there is pervasive gender inequality in the world of sport around the globe. Equal pay is a battle being fought on every sporting frontier, and female athletes are still pushing for better marketing, corporate investment and sponsorship deals.

Jessica Ennis-Hill was the golden girl of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and she stepped into the limelight when women’s sport was just beginning to permeate mainstream consciousness.

The adidas ambassador says it’s vital the conversation moves on from vague ideas about legacy. and focuses on the next generation. Jessica thinks the future of women’s sport lies with young girls – and the importance of making sport a realistic option for them.

‘Lots of young girls want to get involved in sport, but then they get to an age – when they’re teenagers – and there are so many different variables and things that happen in their lives that can change their priorities,’ Jessica tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It’s about connecting with girls at that time in their lives, and really gripping them and getting them hooked in such a fantastic way that they can see a future within sport.

Jessica Ennis-Hill
‘Young girls can be inspired by what other women in sport have achieved’ (Picture: Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Not even just seeing it as a hobby, they have to be able to see a clear pathway to being successful and making it a career.’

We’re meeting at the launch of the new flagship adidas store on Oxford Road. Decked out head-to-toe in branded gear, the former athletics star tells us that the support and funding from big brands has been a crucial factor in her success.

She’s flanked by an intimidatingly impressive bunch of co-ambassadors; Taekwondo star Bianca Walkden, climber Shauna Coxsey and Arsenal footballer Vivianne Miedema.

‘Young girls can be inspired by what other women in sport have achieved – what the women sitting here with me have achieved,’ says Jessica.

‘It goes back to the storytelling. People like us telling the story of where we started and the real journey of what it took to get us to where we are today.’

Vivianne agrees. The Dutch national footballer says she can’t believe how far the women’s game has come since she started out.

‘When I started playing football, I was like the tomboy – I was very much one of the boys,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘But now, we have this platform where you can really be part of the women’s sports movement. We’re lucky with football, it’s massive around the world. We’ve got men’s football and everyone knows what the sport is, but we obviously have still had to build up the national women’s team to the level it’s at now.’

Vivianne explains that many of her teammates are in 40-hour-a-week jobs – working nine-five before training every single evening. She wants being an athlete to be less gruelling for the next generation.

Vivianne Miedema
‘I want to fight for those little girls’ (Picture: Kate McShane/Getty Images)

‘The main focus we have right now is to push on and make the situation better for the girls, so they’re actually able to focus on their sports – that’s what all the little girls want.

‘When I play, I see girls in the crowd wearing little T-shirts with “Miedema” on the back and that really does something to me. I want to fight for those little girls, I want to fight for their future. I want them to have a better situation than what we have right now.’

Vivianne says she’s still has to wrap her head around the crowds, the noise, the fans – every time she steps on to the pitch.

‘I’m not used to it myself yet,’ she says. ‘We go and play in a stadium and we look out and there are 10,000 people standing there wearing shirts with our names on the back. That is something so special.

‘It just makes you want to like want to fight for your sport so much. Especially for the young girls coming through. I want to be able to make sport as good as possible for them.’

Shauna Coxsey is Britain’s most successful climber. She won the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in 2016 and 2017.

‘My sport, it used to be so male dominated, especially when I started over 20 years ago, which is kind of scary,’ says Shauna.

‘When I started out in climbing, If I said I wanted to be a professional climber – people would just laugh at me. It just wasn’t a thing.

‘No one before me has ever been a professional competitive climber. So to be able to sit here now and talk about that, and realise that dream, it is such an honor.’

Shauna’s journey wasn’t easy. To be a pioneering figure in a sport that has historically had such little female involvement – that was never going to be a smooth road. But she wants to give the next generation of female climbers a foothold.

Shauna Coxsey
‘If I said I wanted to be a professional climber – people would just laugh at me’ (Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

‘The more sports we can talk about in the mainstream, and the more different sporting stories we can show to the world, hopefully more people will find something that they’re passionate about, that they love. And they will realise there is a pathway and it is possible.’

Bianca Walkden won bronze at the 2016 Olympics and is a is a triple World champion – but she says she still faced prejudice and disapproval at the start of her career because Taekwondo was perceived to be a ‘male sport’.

‘At the end of the day, I’m beating people up and fighting. It’s definitely seen as a more “masculine” thing to do – and I think it’s that kind of perception that can put women off,’ Bianca tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Getting into sport and making it your profession is a hard thing to – especially in a male dominated sport like mine. But if we can help young girls to find what they love in it – that’s the best place to start.

Bianca Walkden
‘It’s about loving what you do and really finding joy in it’ (Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

‘You don’t even have to become anything with it, it’s not always about that. It’s about loving what you do and really finding joy in it. And if you have that – you can’t really ask for anything more.

Bianca thinks it’s crucial to invest in sport at a grassroots level. She says sport, first and foremost needs to be about enrichment and enjoyment – every success story starts with that.

‘Most things are built from a good foundation,’ she explains. ‘And I think it is the grassroots involvement that does help more people to get involved and grow people’s love for sport.’

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