How we talk to and about women in sports matters.

In December 2018, at a press conference during the European Women’s Handball Championship, Russia’s coach Yevgeni Trefilov was asked which players stood out to him from the Romanian team, Russia’s opponent in the Paris semifinal. The 63-year-old man’s answer regarding women athletes two or three times younger than him was, “Many of them have nice legs and pretty eyes”, sparking a ripple of laughter in a room half-filled with reporters, of which four or five, me included, were women.

It may not seem that important that people laughed or that this is how a man chose to answer a question about the semifinal game of a competition for which some women athletes had worked their entire lives or struggled to get back in shape after giving birth, or where they suffered severe injuries, but it’s a telling example of how we relate to women in sports. This is an issue I’ve been following closely since I learned – from women athletes and coaches I’ve talked to, from my own experiences as a reporter and from the way women athletes are portrayed in the media – that sports, like many other fields, is not a place where women are seen and treated the same way as men.

If you are a woman and you want to be an athlete, chances are your journey will be different from that of a man. You’re likely to be paid less, to play on smaller or emptier arenas, on synthetic grass. You might lose your sponsors or your coaching position if you get pregnant, people in the bleachers might yell at you to chest the ball or swap T-shirts, someone might steal photos from your phone and post naked pictures of you on the internet. You might have to field sexual advances and the media might cover you saying you’re sexy, you have nice legs or pretty eyes or you’re dating someone famous. And if the sport you want to practice, manage or coach is football, then chances are even higher that you will hear things like: you know nothing about this, it’s complicated when you’re a woman refereeing a men’s sport, or football will make your legs ugly, how about you try dancing or ballet instead?

All this happened to women I have talked to, have written or read about. It happened to Liubliana Nedelcu, a 39-year-old agent, in talks with men in football. “Get a load of this, she’s telling me what I should do,” some coaches objected when she told them they hadn’t worked well with junior players or they hadn’t used a certain player in the best position. Liubliana, who has loved football since she used to go to matches with her father, a supporter of the local team in her hometown of Rosiorii de Vede, always knew she would have to put in double the work to prove she understands football just as well as men do. Even though she’s worked in the field for 12 years, she reads books on football and follows the statistics of players she represents, she still feels that “no matter how well you do your job, you’ll never be seen the same way as a man”.

It happened to coach Irina Giurgiu, whose colleagues at coaching school included former football players who laughed and elbowed each other during her presentations, who asked if she’d had her hair done or made jokes she doesn’t want to repeat but which “were not very nice”. Sometimes she smiled and pretended not to hear. Other times she went home crying, feeling “left out, small and useless”, wondering what she was doing there. Now, at 28, she coaches at her own club and the U17 national team, is an assistant coach at the seniors’ national team and was recently the first woman to be admitted to the UEFA PRO License Course, which would allow her to coach in the Romanian First League.

It happens to tennis players, who are invited to twirl after they win a match or are penalized if they change their T-shirts on court. Racing driver Cristiana Oprea was told she would get more media coverage if she posed naked by the car and at the defense of her BA thesis, about an excellence center for motorsport, professors at the University of Architecture asked her why she had chosen “a project for boys”. In 2017, at the press conference ahead of a Fed Cup match between Romania and the UK, Ilie Nastase repeatedly asked rival team captain Anne Keothavong what room she was staying in. He was then suspended during the game, after player Johanna Konta told the referee the Romanian had called her a “fucking bitch”.

I myself, as a sports reporter, have had to deal with some prejudice. While reporting the story of a junior team, the coach said I couldn’t ride the team bus to the stadium before the game, although I had been to practice multiple times. I then learned from the photographer I documented the story with that he was allowed on the bus but women weren’t, because they were bad luck. When he and I visited the players’ high school, the PE teacher who met with us greeted him first and seemed surprised to learn that I was, in fact, the reporter. One coach barked at me for waiting outside the changing room, was I hoping to see the players in their underwear or what? A football player answered my phone call saying “mommy, stop bothering me”, and at my ten-year high school reunion, when I said I was a sports reporter, my former head teacher was surprised that women, too, could be interested in sports. Then he asked if I knew the history of football championships of the past few years.

“No matter how well you do your job, you’ll never be seen the same way as a man”.

That sport, like the society it reflects, is not a world that welcomes women with open arms is something we’ve known since ancient times, when women risked being thrown into the river if they were seen on the Olympic stadium. They were also denied participation at the first edition of the modern Olympics, the most important competition on the planet. Until 1972, women were not allowed to run marathons and until 2011 they were not welcome at the Ski Jumping World Cups because of a myth that said it could be harmful to their reproductive health. Women’s football was also banned in some countries and in Romania it’s been played as an organized sport only since 1990. In Iran, even today women are not allowed at football matches and many of them resort to dressing up as men to enter stadiums.

That women’s participation in sports is on the rise – 45% of athletes at the 2016 Olympics were women, the highest percentage until then – is mostly due to women who fought to bring down the barriers. Former world number one tennis player Billie Jean King, founder of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), fought for equal prize money, and all Grand Slam tournaments now offer the same prizes to women players as they do to men; only some of them hand out plate-shaped trophies to women instead of the cup-shaped trophies they give to men. Kathrine Switzer signed up for the Boston Marathon in 1967 using only her initials and became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant, although the organizer tried to forcibly remove her from the course. This year, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, saying that although they are World and Olympic champions, they are paid less, they practice and travel in worse conditions and have more matches than the men’s national team, which didn’t qualify for the latest World Cup.

2019 marked European records in terms of audiences, with over 60,000 people attending women’s football matches, and saw the launch of development strategies, campaigns and media platforms dedicated to women’s sports. Mid-August, Stéphanie Frappart became the first woman to referee a major men’s match, the UEFA Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea, and said she wasn’t nervous because football is the same. “Finally, I think it’s time,” said coaches of both teams about UEFA’s decision, which they deemed historical.

Illustration: Irina Perju

In Romania, the Football Federation introduced a rule requiring clubs in the First League to have women’s teams starting the 2021/2022 season in order to be licensed. It’s an attempt to develop women’s football – the approximately 2,000 women players enrolled cannot make a living from playing football –, but not everyone welcomed it. “When I see women playing football, I immediately switch channels or turn off the TV. How can you force me to have a women’s team if I don’t like it?”, FCSB owner Gigi Becali told news agency AGERPRES. FCSB is the only club that voted against and challenged the federation’s rule at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Despite all the progress, the world of sport remains one where women have little representation: on stadiums, on technical benches, in management or in the media. At the latest European Women’s Handball Championship, just one team out of 16 was coached by a woman. Out of the 74 sports federations in Romania, just seven were run by women in 2018. International statistics show more than 80% of sports reporters are men, a reality I witness at the international competitions I attend, where sometimes just one or two of 15 Romanian journalists are women. Women athletes see it, too: American football player Megan Rapinoe recently said there should be more women reporters, that the players’ stories would be more complex if they were told from different perspectives. At the beginning of the year, a reporter asked Imke Wubbenhorst, the first woman to coach a men’s team in Germany’s top five leagues, if she had to wear a siren so that players in the dressing room could hear her coming and put pants on. („Of course not,” she responded. “I am a professional. I pick my team based on penis size.”). All this, while women’s teams are almost exclusively surrounded by male coaches, doctors or massage therapists and no one asks them how they feel and whether they cover up in the changing room.

There are also subtler ways that sports show girls and women that the world they want to be part of was not designed for them: there are no foosball tables with female figurines and most sports toys target boys by means of packaging; scientific studies started including women in research only in recent years and started looking, for instance, at the way bio-mechanical differences or hormonal fluctuations impact injuries (women athletes suffer torn ligaments in the knee more often than male athletes). This year, for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was the first time since Nike began working with WWC in 1995 that kits were designed especially for the female form, rather than as derivations of the uniforms made for men. Research and consultations with the athletes revealed which areas were more susceptible to sweating and where to use more breathable materials, and that while men preferred tighter designs that made them feel strong and superhero-like, women preferred their gear looser and more comfortable.

But it’s not just about access, it’s also about the way girls are treated once they enter the sports world. How they are talked to and how safe they are. Gymnasts, judokas and handball players spoke in recent years of the physical and verbal abuse they suffered during practice. In the U.S., over 200 gymnasts were sexually abused by the Olympic team’s former doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to 175 years in prison. In Romania, seven girls aged between 11 and 14 were raped by their 65-year-old handball coach, who was sentenced in 2017 to 19 years in prison. Also in 2017, a coach in Sânnicolau Mare, the westernmost town of the country, was fired from handball for sexually harassing two female students. In August 2019, a 47-year-old policeman in Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, who taught boxing in his spare time, was placed under preventive arrest for the attempted rape of a 12-year-old girl and the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl, both of whom he was coaching.

This type of abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is allowed by a culture that often cares more about medals than child safety.

It doesn’t just happen to girls, even if they report such incidents more often – in the UK, over 350 former football players spoke about sexual abuse they suffered at junior academies – and it doesn’t just happen in professional sports. This spring, a physical education teacher in Alba Iulia, a city in the west-central part of Romania, was indicted for acts of a sexual nature (“hugs and fondling, including touching private parts”, according to the indictment) against several under-age students, during PE classes. In class, he called his pupils names like “idiot, inept, handicapped, fatso, cow, slut”. It’s a language similar to the one used by famous Romanian handball coach Gheorghe Tadici towards Crina Pintea, the line player of the Women’s National Handball Team, voted the best line player in Europe, during the first six years of her senior career. There were years when Crina, who recently won Champions League with Győr, says she was hit, stepped on, insulted, spit on and humiliated by the former national team coach who still sits on the board of Romania’s Handball Federation.

This type of abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is allowed by a culture that often cares more about medals than child safety. It happens because most coaches are men who are given absolute power and authority and because many children leave their homes early, with dreams of winning medals, and move into dorm rooms and academies, away from their parents. It happens because, for a long time, the results in which we take such pride were obtained through violence and in a climate of fear, and even today there are athletes and coaches who believe you can’t succeed without a “spartan training”.

But this myth of success obtained through sacrifice and suffering, which is alive and well in sports gyms around the country, can easily become a shield that allows and protects much more dangerous behaviors. Our national pride and passion for sports shouldn’t let us forget there is a world of difference between a “spartan training” meant to push athletes to overcome their limits, and acts of abuse or violence. Slapping, hitting, swearing should not be considered acceptable behavior in women’s sports or in men’s sports.

“I practiced gymnastics out of fear, like animals at the circus,” Gabriela Geiculescu, a former gymnast, now aged 53, told me in an interview last year. She had nightmares for years after retiring due to untreated back problems and only in the United States, where she now coaches at her own gym, did she learn that gymnastics can be practiced with joy. “They were both harsh,” she said of her coaches at the Triumf School Sports Club in Bucharest. “But of course he was worse. She only pinched us, hit us over the legs with a water hose, but we only worked with her for balance beam. With him we worked at three events, acrobatics, uneven bars and vault, and he was really cruel. (…) He beat me the most, every day. Not a day went by without getting hit, and he hit me alright.”

Many gymnasts I’ve spoken to said they were never slapped but some, in informal talks, told me how they were pulled by the hair and hit across the legs with sticks or shoes, how they were told every day that they were fat, until they could no longer see anything else in the mirror, how they were “treated gently and then not so gently” when they didn’t perform well, or how they were afraid to say they were in pain because they were not believed. The boyfriend of one, himself a gymnast, said it’s the same with boys but “they’re different, they don’t take it to heart; girls are more emotional.”

Many of them are afraid to speak openly, especially after seeing how the ones who did speak were treated, including by people in sports. When former gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Maria Olaru wrote in her autobiography Prețul aurului, sinceritate incomodă (The price of gold, uncomfortable honesty) about the slaps and insults she had received from several coaches, including Mariana Bitang and Octavian Bellu, other gymnasts from her generation, people in the federation and other athletes said she was hurting gymnastics, that they hadn’t been hit, that she was talking about it too late or that she shouldn’t reveal such details about the coaches who helped her become an Olympic champion.

It’s a culture of silence that perpetuates such behaviors, in a society where girls are taught at young ages to hold their tongues, to endure, to obey and not rebel.

“Even if they had tread on me, if I were asked about it today, I would never tell,” said in a TV show on Digi Sport Elisabeta Lipă, the most decorated rower in history. She was at that time Minister for Youth and Sports, the very leader who could have elicited change, at least in terms of discourse. Instead, she added: “Professional sports is like a marriage. You don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

It’s a culture of silence that perpetuates such behaviors, in a society where girls are taught at young ages to hold their tongues, to endure, to obey and not rebel, as Crina Pintea said she used to react when she was abused, or as Gabriela Geiculescu says about how she couldn’t fight back. “When you see my only act of rebellion is to cry, that I can’t talk back, I can’t say how I feel, I can’t do anything else; when you say ‘Ten more repetitions’, I well up and start crying, and you think you’re helping?” said Gabriela. “The federation knew, the other coaches in the room knew what was happening and no one said anything, who was I to complain to?”

Precisely because they are still few, it’s important that when women athletes find the courage to speak out they are listened to and believed. It’s important to talk about abuse in sports, as well as in society, and to offer them as many platforms as possible. That’s what they want as well. “I wish other girls would speak out, too. They have no reason to keep it all inside, no reason to be afraid or ashamed,” said Crina, who understood while playing abroad that if more women athletes protested, retorted or refused to continue training, things would be different for future generations. “How are we going to stop this if we don’t talk about it?” said Gabriela, who doesn’t understand why some athletes are still afraid. “When I read Maria Olaru’s book, how can anyone imagine a child is to blame for being beaten? What kind of a society is this?”

I often watch admiringly how confident women athletes in other countries are, like tennis player Serena Williams or soccer player Megan Rapinoe, how openly they speak about their experiences as women in sports, as LGBT athletes or as athletes of color, and how persistently they demand equality and respect because they understand they can be a voice for those who are more vulnerable. I wish for more Romanian athletes like them, but maybe more time needs to pass before Romanian sport, which is part of a society used to sweeping anything that’s painful under the rug, is ready for such complicated debates; not just about violence and discrimination, but also about mental health, body image, sexual orientation or bullying.

Illustration: Irina Perju

There are some women athletes trying to create systems, platforms and opportunities they do not see around. Andreea Răducan, former gymnast and current president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, had individual talks with gymnasts on the Olympic team and gave them her phone number and her personal e-mail address. Tennis player Simona Halep, two times Grand Slam winner, supports, through her own foundation, a women’s hockey team and a rhythmic gymnastics competition because she knows how hard the journey to success is and “there is much to be done to keep girls active in sports,” as she said in an interview for The Telegraph. Two high school girls talk about their experiences as football players on a blog they started, Footballiciousgirls, because they want to change people’s opinion that football is only for men. Racing driver Cristiana Oprea created a website about women in motorsport, because she felt the need for more representation in a field where women are seen as exceptions.

But beyond more representation, we also need fewer stereotypes. If a girl wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer – the most popular in history –, she would have seen on TVR, Romania’s national television station, a promotion clip that said, in a male voice of course, that “it’s not just boys who are having fun, girls are at the World Cup”. On the screen, she would have seen women’s legs in red shoes sticking a pointy heel into a football ball, followed by the same booming male voice saying: “More goals, finer ankles”. (Centrul FILIA, a local NGO, filed a complaint over the clip to the National Audiovisual Council, but the board ruled it had not breached audio-visual law.)

If a girl were to pick up a sports newspaper on any given day, she would see 42 photos of male athletes and just eight of women, including a bikini-clad star and one of Lionel Messi feeling up his wife in a nightclub. She would read an article titled Women, on stadiums or in the kitchen?, where she would learn that “none of us think football is the most fortunate form of manifestation of women’s skills”. On TV she would see news stories about the sexy and fast girl chased by all the boys on the track or about the sexy and mean referee who puts men football players in their place, and on sports websites she would read about where the sexiest handball players spent their vacations; yes, sexy is a word used very often in media coverage of women’s sports.

Besides getting little media coverage, when they are being covered, women athletes are often portrayed in ways that minimize their athleticism and highlight their femininity, sexuality and physical beauty, says Nicole LaVoi, an American professor of sport psychology and sport sociology who studies gender equality. And this “tells us it’s more important what you look like than what you can do. Sexualized images of girls and women do little to increase interest in or respect for women’s sports. (…) Sexualized images of girls and women tell young men and boys that female bodies are objects of sexual desire, to be consumed rather than to be honored and respected.”

This type of media coverage occurs even though in recent years Romania’s biggest successes in sports were brought by women in sports like handball, tennis, fencing, table tennis or rowing. And yet we see them too rarely and we give them too little depth when they deserve much more. As do the hundreds of young girls who dream of following in their footsteps and who need to see that it’s worth it, especially since in Romania success is too often due to individual effort (including financially) and not to a strong system in place.

It’s important to view women’s sports – and the presence of women, in general, in traditionally male-dominated environments – as normal, not as some rarity, an exception, something exotic or amusing.

Even if not everything that’s written about them is in those terms, Cristina Neagu, the only handball player named World Player of the Year four times (a record in men’s handball as well) deserves more than stories about how she has her eyes on boys (because she said in an interview that she watches men’s handball), or where she is compared to Messi or Ronaldo. Simona Halep, Romania’s biggest tennis player, deserves more than articles about the breast reduction surgery she had when she was 18, or about her boyfriend and when she plans to get married, although she has asked the press for more discretion and respect for her privacy. Former Olympic champion Nadia Comăneci, who radically changed the world of gymnastics, deserves more than a headline like “Perfect 10 in a bikini”. Any woman athlete who fights to win a match deserves more than photos of her bare breasts and headlines like “Accidental striptease, player’s breasts exposed”.

These are newspapers for a male audience, I’ve been told, and that is unfair not just because it excludes us, as women who love sports, but because it normalizes a wrong way of thinking and of talking about women. Because it’s not just about women athletes, but about the message we’re sending women – and men – about women’s place in society. It’s about raising strong, brave and confident girls in an unsafe world, where sports could be such a wonderful tool to teach them confidence, self-esteem, self-defense techniques and leadership skills. Ninety-six percent of women in top management positions played sports as teenagers, according to a 2013 study by Ernst&Young, and many said it has helped them in their careers. “[Sports] has taught me to see the limitations that girls place on themselves as false and that the stories we often tell ourselves of what we’re capable of aren’t necessarily true,” said Alison Glock, an award-winning American journalist and writer. “When you play sports, you transcend those self-imposed limitations.”

But if we exclude them, with direct or subtler messages, if we show them that their looks are all that matters, if we portray women athletes as sex-bombs or assign value to them only in their roles as girlfriends, wives or mothers (while men are athletic, strong, fast and competitive), if they hear adults in the school yard or in parks telling their boys that they “run like a girl” when they want to embarrass them, we’re essentially telling them sports is not for them. And if we consider the fact that the number of girls quitting sports before the age of 14 is double compared to that of boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, or that Romania ranks at the tail end among EU countries in terms of mass sports participation, maybe we wouldn’t laugh it off.

For this message to change, we need more representation and more women role models because they can help society take a step forward in its understanding of gender roles and the concepts of femininity and masculinity. Women role models matter, said Nicole LaVoi, author of a book about the low number of women coaches. “They matter to girls, and they matter to boys, because who and what you see tells you what’s relevant, valued and important. And what is not.”

That’s why the stories we tell matter. That’s why how we talk to and how we treat women athletes matters – on the court, in press conference rooms, in interviews –, what headlines we write, what we click on or how we react to a so-called joke. It’s important to view women’s sports – and the presence of women, in general, in traditionally male-dominated environments – as normal, not as some rarity, an exception, something exotic or amusing.