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Emilie Heymans from Canada competes during the women's three-metre springboard diving preliminaries at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Friday. (Michael Sohn/AP)
Emilie Heymans from Canada competes during the women's three-metre springboard diving preliminaries at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Friday. (Michael Sohn/AP)

Jennifer Heil

2012 Olympics should spark new approach to girls in sport Add to ...

The London 2012 Olympic Games are an important milestone for girls and women in sport.

Multiple firsts are taking place.

For the very first time, females are being represented by every participating nation at the Games. Female boxing makes its Olympic debut, and the team from the United States has more women members than men.

British boxer Amanda Coulson realizes the significance of the inclusion of her sport for future generations of girls. "It is a great thing to think that little girls calling those gyms are not going to be told there is no changing room," she says. "That door that was padlocked ... it's wide open now.”

In Canada, opportunities for girls and women to participate in sport are extensive.

Growing up in small town Alberta, with a loving family and strong community support, I was blissfully unaware of the gender issue that constrains so many young women around the world. I never questioned my dream to be an Olympian in the male-dominated sport of Freestyle Mogul Skiing. I was honoured to be a part of the 2006 Canadian Olympic team in which females won 16 of 24 medals. But, more importantly, I felt proud to live in a country that affords such extensive opportunity to realize your dreams.

At home, more girls are participating in sport than ever before. Yet challenges and barriers to female sport and physical activity participation still remain. Research has revealed that adolescent girls are twice as likely to drop out of sport than boys and at a younger age. A report on the status of girls and physical activity states that only one third of girls are meeting the minimal physical activity requirements.

The need for improvement is obvious. Being physically active contributes to the overall success of any individual, including improved mental health, confidence, performance in school and a decreased risk of many debilitating conditions, such as diabetes.

One of the leading reasons girls cite for not being interested in sport is that being muscular and sweating is not congruent with their image of being feminine. I understand why when one considers the pressure faced by girls and young women to live up to unrealistic images of women portrayed in the media. From my perspective, being feminine comprises many things, including feeling confident and empowered to show my physical abilities whether having the ability to hit a mogul jump to fly 30 metres in the air or move with grace around a dance floor.

Role models have an important influence in helping girls become involved in sport and be physically active. London 2012 certainly has an abundance of positive female role models from Canada’s Rosie MacLennan, Mary Spencer and Emilie Heymans to American swimmer Missy Franklin and British poster girl Jessica Ennis to name just a few.

But despite this, just last week, before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, a 16-year-old girl told me that she felt there weren’t enough female role models. She shared that many of her friends have stopped playing sports recently because they did not want their image to be perceived as being sporty.

When the Olympic Games conclude and amateur sports coverage recedes into the background only to be replaced by more male dominated professional sports, I am wondering how we are to ensure that girls have the inspiration required to continue participating in activities that will see them become active for life? A multifaceted approach is required that begins with a different narrative in which being feminine and being athletic are congruent, where photoshop gets eliminated from the media and where girls are exposed to a variety of sport skills at a young age so that they may gain the competency and confidence to remain active throughout their lives. Doing so is the vibrancy of our country.

Jennifer Heil represented Canada in freestyle skiing at three Olympic Games, winning a gold medal in Turin and a silver in Vancouver.