Feature: Women in Sport – including interviews with Natalie Powell, Michaela Breeze and more

Women in Sport: how does the world of sport promote female involvement?

by Ella Fenwick

The sporting world prides itself upon the power it has to create a sense of togetherness. Full of energy bringing nations together around the world, giving people a sense of belonging they desire. From global events to local competitions, fans stand on the side-lines cheering and athleticism is celebrated as a gift. The effect sport can have on an individual cannot be discredited, but issues surrounding should not be forgotten either.

Over the past decade there has been a noticeable positive shift towards female inclusion in sport but underlying problems still exist. In a male-dominated sector, women have found themselves denied equal opportunities in sport.

The favouritism of male athletes in the sporting world has been prominent in sports coverage, and is reinforced by the gender pay gaps. Male or female, an athlete is still an athlete, and both genders are deserving of the same opportunities. Policies and practices are changing, but as a proud sporting community, how should stereotypes be challenged and female participation be empowered?

According to a study by Sport England data, 26% of women across the UK are inactive in sport, meaning they do less than 30 minutes of physical activity a day. The results showed there was still a large difference between male involvement in sports in comparison to women.

But there are campaigns across the UK working hard to improve these statistics, including “This Girl Can” and “Women in Sport”. The current achievements by both parties and other campaigns alike, have allowed for real progress, reaching some major milestones and have hopefully triggered legacies in female sport across the United Kingdom.

The positives from women in sport should not be repressed either therefore in celebration of International Women’s Day, I have spoken to four inspirational women involved in sport. Following personal accounts and different experiences, to exploring aspects of the sporting world through the eyes of some incredible athletes.

How does Cardiff University promote female involvement in sport? 

Athletic Union President, Jude Pickett, speaks about a thriving sporting community for women at Cardiff University

Sport is first introduced to everyone at a young age and we are given the opportunity to participate in a variety of sports right up until education is finished. At Cardiff University, engagement in sports is encouraged, with students having the choice to participate in over 65 sports clubs.

Jude Pickett, Cardiff University’s Athletic Union President, has made equality across all sports clubs a priority. The AU President has been keen to reiterate the efforts made this year to improve the overall balance and diversity across the sport.

“The sports that we run here at the AU have women involved, that’s because they are either a mixed group like American Football or because we have a men’s and then a women’s team,” said Pickett.

“On any given week, we have up to 26 female teams that go out and compete in BUCS including ultimate frisbee, netball, tennis, hockey and rugby, there’s just so much going on at Cardiff University. Sport involvement at the university goes beyond just BUCS with more casual IMG leagues where there are over 50 netball teams that get involved.“

“We have the BUCS nationals, which is where lots of individual sports go. So there was a lot of athletics and martial arts there, as well as other sports. We have some very high performing athletes that went and brought back medals for us, including Esther Adikp, who brought back bronze in the 400-metre sprint.”

“We have very well-performing women’s teams, but we make sure that there is an equal opportunity for women and men to get involved, whether that is competitive or recreational at the University.”

Pickett praised the performance of the women’s teams over the past season, too, pointing out that there have been some very high achieving sides.

“We have some really well-performing Ladies’ teams. Our Ladies’ rugby team have been smashing it this season, as they went undefeated in their league, so we are excited to see where they will go in the next couple of years.”

“I think across the board, Ladies’ sport at Cardiff is celebrated,” Pickett went onto say, “there’s lots of women active across the campus which is something we really celebrate and enjoy here at the University.”

What can you do to fight for equality in sport?

Verity Butt, Ladies’ Rugby President, speaks about her sports journey

Verity Butt is an aspiring rugby player who is currently the President of the Cardiff University Ladies’ Rugby club working hard to increase equality in a male-dominated sport to ensure there are equal opportunities for her team.

Butt began her rugby journey in school, despite the discouragement from her Dad in taking up the sport, she decided to follow her dreams.

“My three brothers have played rugby from a young age, so I was quite competitive. I was always standing on the sidelines. One day I said to my Dad ‘I want to play rugby’ and he turned round and said ‘No you need to work on your studies’ and ‘Rugby is not a girls game’.  I was at boarding school at that time so I joined the girls rugby team behind his back.”

At the beginning of her sporting career, Butt was scouted by multiple development schemes and even played in the Olympic trials.

“My coaches scouted me and put me into the county team, then I trained with the Harlequins development Premiership team. I had Olympic trials in Cardiff, got scouted by Rowland Phillips who put me into the Dragon’s development set-up. I joined Cardiff University and began playing for their team.”

Verity Butt competing at Welsh Varsity in the Principality Stadium against Swansea University.

Since playing for Cardiff University, Verity took her passion for the sport a step further and was elected President for the club.”

As President I am involved with quite a lot of talks about Ladies’ rugby development and we have definitely had our fair share of barriers this year. Obviously the men are in the Super League of BUCS and we are in the Premiership. The girls don’t actually have a Super League, I feel like that is always held over our heads.”

“Men’s rugby is so much bigger but I feel like Ladies’ Rugby is very successful in the development side so essentially we have gone from Western 1A to Premiership in a year, and then straight up to winning the league.”

As President, Butt encourages the engagement of women within the club, offering the students many different aspects outside of playing for the team.

“From a club side of things we provide so many opportunities for the girls.We have mental health support every Thursday, we do loads of fundraising, we host lots of fun sober socials and interclub socials and lots of team bonding sessions.”

The university has provided the club with star coaches to train the players, leading them to many victories over the year, however Butt thinks they are all working together to achieve more.

“We are really close with our coaches and at the end of the day we are all here to progress and really use that inner quality aspect of it that we do have to fight so many barriers to become equals to the men.”

For Varsity this year, Butt has worked in close quarters with Swansea University to achieve equality in how rugby is experienced by students on the day.

“This year we have fought to play Varsity in the Liberty Stadium and we finally got it and finally got our names on Varsity posters. People are really driven by the aspect to have these opportunities.”

How does it feel to represent your country at the top level of sport?

Natalie Powell, former Cardiff University student, discusses her rise to Judo number one, representing Wales and more

Natalie Powell competes professionally in Judo and has represented both Wales and Great Britain since winning Gold in the Commonwealth Games back in 2014.

The former Cardiff University student has since gone on to break several records in British Judo history.

Most notably of which was becoming the first-ever British female to be ranked number one in the world.

Building on the success from 2014, Powell achieved world number one ranking by winning Gold at the Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam 2017.

Her achievements in Judo have been the main reason for the rise in popularity in the UK and further highlight the rise of female involvement in martial arts.

Powell began her Judo journey at an early age with her first involvement in the sport coming through school.

“A few of my friends were doing it when I was about eight in Primary school, so my mum took me along to a local club where they were all training.

“I think as well because I used to always fight my Dad in the kitchen, so I think she just wanted me to channel my energy better,” said Powell.

From training at a local club, Powell now finds herself on the international stage. The 29-year-old has performed at the peak of Judo for a number of years and continues to thrive in the sport.

“It makes me feel really proud. I love fighting for Wales, the only time you get to do so is in the Commonwealth Games so I think that was a real highlight of my career just because I could actually fight for Wales.

“I am really proud to be British and Welsh, but there are not many opportunities to actually fight for Wales, which made it an extra special one.”

Powell has achieved medals at many global sporting events, one of which was Gold in the Commonwealth Games in 2014, but she says her ‘biggest achievement’ was winning a World Championships bronze medal in 2017.

Gender equality in Judo has improved massively over the years with Powell explaining how it has encouraged more diverse involvement.

“I think it is potentially going up, it was quite a male-dominated sport when I was younger.

“The tide has sort of changed in British Judo, there seems to be a lot more women doing it now.

“I think in my time in Judo, over the past 20 years I have definitely seen a shift in equality. The same amount of men and women qualify for the Olympics and all the prize money is the same.”

Natalie Powell competing at the highest level of Judo.

Asked on her advice for aspiring female athletes, Powell stated that the overall enjoyment of competing in sport outweighs the challenges female athletes can face.

“I would definitely say a hundred percent to give it a go, there are just so many benefits to Judo. Socially, you get to travel as well.

“It is such a physically and mentally demanding sport so you really get to challenge all aspects. It’s just really enjoyable and it keeps you fit, so I would definitely tell them to give it a go.”

Powell still has an exciting sporting career ahead of her and will be hoping to continue her record-breaking career in style.

Looking ahead to the next few years and her short-term aims, Powell quickly pointed towards Tokyo 2020 and the ambition to achieve at least bronze there.

“I will hopefully have an Olympic medal round my neck after Tokyo, that is my immediate goal. To win in the Olympic games would be my dream come true.”

For now, the Welsh Judo star will have full focus on training well and fully preparing for the Olympic games.

If her success in the sport is anything to go by, she certainly stands in good stead to reach the podium in Tokyo.

Given her success in Judo, Powell should be seen as one of the ground-breakers in helping improve female involvement in Judo.

In a wider context, her success shows just how much can be achieved despite a number of obstacles in the way.

Do you ever find gender inequalities?

Michaela Breeze, former British weightlifter, talks about her achievements, the Commonwealth Games and much more

Michaela Breeze is a former British weightlifter who has competed in some of the biggest global sporting events, representing both Wales and Great Britain. Breeze was awarded an MBE in 2011 after retiring in 2010 once she had received a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games. Breeze opened a gym in Aberdare but shortly made a comeback in 2014 to represent Wales in the Commonwealth Games bringing home a bronze medal.

Breeze began weightlifting while in secondary school, encouraged through her PE lessons.

“I was a 13-year-old, I guess I was under pressure, well not under pressure but was encouraged to do sports that I didn’t particularly enjoy and I wanted to do something different. So, I chose weightlifting and taekwondo. They are the sports I pursued in my early years.”

Michela Breeze in action at the Commonwealth Games 2014.

Breeze represented Great Britain in the European Championships in 2003 achieving a bronze medal and went on to represent Wales in the Commonwealth Games from her professional debut in 2002 to her comeback in 2014.

Breeze said, “Emotional, if I had to describe it in one word, it would have to be emotional. It is just such an honour to have the privilege to represent your country and to be able to do so over two decades. On such big stages like the Olympics, Commonwealth, Worlds and Europeans, it has been quite a privilege and something that I will forever cherish.

“My personal highlight would  be gold in the Commonwealth Games in 2006 in the 100kg snatch.”

Weightlifting has always been predominantly stereotyped as a “male sport”.

Breeze explained, “I guess being female in a male-dominated sport throughout the early part of my career was always a challenge. There were always comments whether that be at school or going through the ranks that it is a sport for men. That is another reason why I I pursued it, because I wanted to show that actually, no it is not just for men, women can do this as well.”

Over the years, weightlifting has developed a higher rate of female participation due to the inclusion within the Olympics, inspiring many young athletes to get involved.

“As it is apparent now women being involved in Olympic weightlifting, I guess I bucked the trend early on and it is great to see so many other people now following suit.”

Since retiring and opening her own gym, Breeze coaches athletes daily, running training camps and seminars for aspiring athletes.

Breeze also went onto say, ”I encourage both genders, we talk about female equality but at the same time I give equal opportunities to both males and females, whoever wants to have a go at the sport is welcome to come and train with me and come to my training camps. I welcome both genders.”