Former Olympian applauds hockey director who stood up for girls

December 3, 2014
World Championships in Vienna, 1991. Walinga is first on the right.
"We have to reveal the imbalances, we have to heighten knowledge, we have to challenge people to think differently. This is a human rights issue." Prof. Jennifer Walinga, former Olympic rower

The head of the female program at Kelowna Minor Hockey has resigned, saying girls are treated unfairly and recent frustrations have led him to question the organization’s commitment to female athletes.

“A number of inequities between the male and female programs have been evident for a long time,” Kent Johnson writes in his resignation letter, posted on CBC yesterday. “Some of the gaps are slowly being closed. In a few cases, there is no sign of improvement.”

Johnson’s concerns include several issues surrounding practices: the girls get less ice time than the boys, their timeslots are less desirable and sometimes they’re forced to do their drills on smaller ice surfaces. He also mentions female teams getting bumped from practices due to rink conflicts and the rejection of his proposal to share that burden among all teams.

Former Olympic rower and director of the School of Communication and Culture Jennifer Walinga says putting more value and attention on male athletes has serious ramifications.

“It’s sending the wrong message to both genders,” says Walinga, who researches the connection between values and sports, and the role of sport in building culture and social capacity. “It’s very dangerous to tell girls that they’re somehow the lesser gender and to tell boys that they’re superior. It confounds relationship, communication, opportunity, confidence, esteem – everything.

“It’s telling kids that their identity is all sewn up within their gender, which really limits their whole sense of who they are and what’s possible for them. It puts them in a little box and that’s terrible. It puts a lot of pressure on little boys, too, to be the primary entertainers on the sports stage and that’s not what it’s all about.”

Jennifer Walinga

In his letter, Johnson writes that the “proverbial straw” was being told that he would only be provided with enough ice for four-team tournaments in the recreational divisions. This came after receiving assurances from the league they would do better for female teams after an inequity was highlighted at the higher levels, where male tournaments welcomed up to eight teams and female tournaments accommodated only four.

“This is a great opportunity for diversity of opponents,” Johnson says of the tournament program. “It is also a primary fundraising tool.” 

Moves like this are similar to how universities schedule men’s and women’s basketball games, Walinga points out. The women typically play at 5 p.m., followed by the men at primetime. Walinga finds this frustrating.

“By saying that the men get the better timeslot, because they bring in more revenue, we’re attaching this horrible quantified value to what they’re doing and that’s not even what sport is about,” she says. “Sport is about human striving and capacity. It’s about physical excellence and interactive excellence – working within that team and communicating on the floor and being strategic and selfless, working together to achieve a goal. Once we start subjugating all of that to money then we lose all those other values.”

There are all too many examples of gender inequities in sports, Walinga says. When she was a competitive rower, there were more events for men than women and even the length of the women’s race was 1,000 meters, whereas the men’s race was 2,000. At every event, the men had more spectators than the women, as is the case in most sports.

“While it was not my focus as an athlete, as a parent, coach and educator I struggle with our loss of focus as a society,” Walinga says. “Why is there always this unspoken assumption that the men are higher on a hierarchy of value in sport? There are more opportunities for men in sport and people will argue that’s because more men compete or are more exciting to watch and therefore bring in more revenue. But inequalities start when they’re four years old. If kids aren’t given equal opportunities or if limits are imposed due to gender, then of course more boys and fewer girls will participate and people will continue to watch and support for the wrong reasons.”

In 2009, a group of 15 female ski jumpers from five countries launched a lawsuit against the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee, pushing for inclusion in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. They argued that allowing men to compete, but not women, is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which bars gender-based discrimination. The suit failed, but the event was added to the 2014 Olympics. 

Today, female soccer players are fighting to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada on real grass rather than artificial turf. On Oct. 1, a group of elite female players filed a lawsuit with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario calling the use of turf “dangerous, game-changing and demeaning.” They say it amounts to gender discrimination. Prominent male athletes agree with the women, with NBA player Kobe Bryant and Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for the U.S. men’s team, voicing their support.

Likewise, in Kelowna, Johnson is speaking out on an issue that is about much more than ice time; it’s about human rights, equal opportunity and our development as a society.

“I have enjoyed the challenge of improving opportunities for girls in sport,” Johnson writes. “Three Atom female teams might be as many as any other association in B.C. That is very exciting. I want those girls to have every opportunity that the boys have. I am very proud of the steps we have taken for girls’ hockey in and around Kelowna. I am no longer convinced that progress can continue within Kelowna Minor Hockey. I will leave it to others to build on what has been accomplished.”

From a communications standpoint, Johnson’s resignation sends a strong message, Walinga notes.

“He’s using his resignation to really stand up for the girls,” she says. “People like Kent Johnson are giving female athletes a voice. They are helping the girls say, ‘Yeah, that is unfair.  I’m of no lesser value than any kid on the block, and definitely not because I’m a girl.’ We have to reveal the imbalances, we have to heighten knowledge, we have to challenge people to think differently. This is a human rights issue.”

Top photo: World Championships in Vienna, 1991. Walinga is first on the right.