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Women’s team sports must not be left behind in lockdown

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Women’s team sports must not be left behind in the return to action and recovery from Covid-19, a leading Welsh sports administrator has warned.

Chris Jenkins, chief executive of Commonwealth Games Wales and a member of the committee liaising with Welsh Government on the staged return of elite performers, insists the planning is in place to ensure there is no long-term gender gap.

Former Olympic champion Denise Lewis is one of many voices to have spoken of concern that women’s sport risks being marginalised during the current pandemic.


While Premier League football has returned and Welsh Championship clubs Cardiff City and Swansea City are back up and running, the women’s season was cut short at every level in both Wales and England.

Wales captain Sophie Ingle may have become a title winner with Chelsea, but only after the Women’s Super League was abandoned and the championship trophy handed out on a points-per-game basis.

The same scenario could be repeated in rugby, where the men’s professional game is planning for an August resumption.

Netball’s Super League was abandoned in the first few weeks of the pandemic after a handful of rounds, while other team sports with high female participation, such as hockey, are also yet to resume at any level.

“We are aware of the issues for women’s sports and that’s why we need to make sure everything is inclusive within the plans and timeline for the phased return,” says Jenkins.

“We have looked at this very closely because it’s an obvious concern. But while we are on top of this, we know we need to ensure that we fully understand the consequences of each phase of the return to training and sport.”

Jenkins believes the divide is a function of the gulf between the richer elements in sport and the poorer – rather than one of gender.

He points out that while Premier League and Championship football have led the way to resuming – with their ability to fund expensive and complex protocols at each stadium – Leagues One and Two have not.

Those lower two divisions, he says, are far more similar to women’s professional or semi-professional team sports where the income is mainly from match day revenue.

With no spectators allowed in to any stadia at present, the economic consequences of resuming matches are far more difficult for teams who are less able to call on TV revenue.

“Leagues One and Two in football have not come back, while the return for rugby and for Welsh domestic football is more gradual and likely to be mid-summer at the earliest,” says Jenkins.

“A lot of this is driven from where the money comes from in the first place. In Premier League football, it’s from the TV rights in the main, with other income secondary.

“But for those sports that rely heavily on spectators, which means almost all of women’s sport, the income issues are all about when spectators can come back. The enhanced safety and medical protocols for returning to sport are not inexpensive. ”

Research, says Jenkins, is currently being carried out on how best elite team sports can be resumed where money is far tighter.

When the professional footballers at Swansea and Cardiff first returned to training at the end of May, it was a phased process.

Initially, they worked on drills in small groups and the sessions were gradually made more intense as the players regained their fitness.

It will be the same when the four professional rugby regions resume training towards the end of June. With the health risks in a close contact sport yet to be fully worked out, it will not be a case of business as usual.

The same steady pace is being adopted by elite individual sports performers – men and women – who have started to slowly return to training in Wales.

One of those advising the athletes on their return is Owen Lewis – Sport Wales’ assistant director of sports systems, strategy and services – who says anyone who rushes back in risks undermining all their ambitions.

Injuries and accidents can occur in the most unlikely circumstances as both Welsh cyclist Elynor Backstedt (broken leg) and rower Vicky Thornley (broken arm) discovered when they were hurt taking exercise, rather than in training.

“One of the big things to realise is that these athletes are not coming back to training as normal,” says Lewis. “It won’t look like training as usual.

“Firstly, they will need to grade their return back so that they don’t come back at the level they were training pre-lockdown and get injured straight away.

“Secondly, they need to minimise the risk of injury in training because of the burden that puts on the NHS.

“For example, if you’re a young gymnast on a high bar and your break a fibula or tibia, then normally the NHS is great for sorting that out. But if they didn’t have the capacity and simply have to put you in a cast, that obviously has implications for a young athlete.

“We are really encouraging sports to think about all the risks they are exposing young athletes to at present.”

The message is go safe . . . go steady.