Nancy Gillen

A crowd of more than 86,000 spectators cheering on a sporting event is almost unimaginable now.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of competition has taken place behind closed doors since March and this looks likely to continue for some time.

The past year did indeed start with crowds of that magnitude, however, including for the final of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Women's T20 World Cup on March 8. The 86,174 attendance at Melbourne Cricket Ground broke numerous records, including the largest for a women’s cricket match, for a women or men’s T20 World Cup final and for a women’s sporting event in Australia.

It was a triumphant beginning to 2020 for women’s sport. Optimism for a ground-breaking year for female athletes was high. It is hard to believe that less than a month later from the events at Melbourne Cricket Ground, women’s sport had been plunged into a state of crisis.

By April, countless countries around the world were struggling with the effects of coronavirus. Many went into lockdown and with that came the suspension of sport. Of course, the most high-profile sporting casualty of the pandemic was the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Tokyo is instead preparing to host the multi-sport competition this year instead, although uncertainty still shrouds the event with just seven months to go.

The prognosis for women’s sport at the start of the pandemic was not good either. Women’s teams, leagues and competitions have been perennially underfunded and ignored, although there are slight variations between country and sport. The pandemic exposed the already fragile foundations of women's sport. At a time when clubs and governing bodies were experiencing financial woes and making cuts, the outlook for female athletes did not look positive. 

Having looked more into the matter in late April, it was apparent the pandemic was set to have a disproportionate financial impact on women’s sport. Female athletes were also more likely to suffer from mental health issues as the suspension of sport continued, and the rescheduling of men’s events was being prioritised over women’s competitions.

Naomi Osaka won the US Open in September and wore masks showing the names of police brutality victims during the tournament ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka won the US Open in September and wore masks showing the names of police brutality victims during the tournament ©Getty Images

These problems are still present and there are numerous sportswomen around the world who have been unable to return to action. There have been some positives for women’s sport this year, however.

Competition has taken place in some form for female athletes in athletics, football, tennis, basketball, cricket, golf, rugby, swimming, netball and table tennis, to name but a few. The majority of winter sports have also managed to hold events this season, including Alpine skiing, bobsleigh and skeleton, luge and ski jumping. Seasons may be abridged and spectators absent, but there have still been competitive opportunities.

Those who can compete seem to have taken the bull by the horns and produced memorable sporting moments in a year otherwise barren of such occasions. Particularly unforgettable was Naomi Osaka’s victory at the US Open in September.

Not only did she produce a remarkable turnaround in the final to defeat Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 1–6, 6–3, 6–3, but she went through the tournament wearing masks which bore the names of victims of racism and police brutality in the United States. During a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement was prominent, Japan’s Osaka showed the influence female athletes could have in the battle against racism and other injustices.  

Oddly, the pandemic presented opportunities to women’s sport which otherwise would not have been available. With the majority of sport suspended, any competition which did take place, especially in the first few months of the global health crisis, was given unprecedented attention.

Take the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Challenge Cup, for example. The eight-team tournament took place in a bio-secure bubble in Utah in June and July. It was one of the first sporting events in the world to be held since the start of the pandemic.

Sport starved fans lapped the tournament up, with the final between Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars drawing an NWSL record audience of 653,000 viewers on CBS. The opening match of the event had already broken the previous record after 572,000 people tuned in. Prior to those games, the NWSL’s viewership record had been 190,000 viewers for a Portland Thorns and Houston Dash clash in August 2014.

The NWSL Challenge Cup final in July attracted a record-breaking amount of viewers on CBS ©Getty Images
The NWSL Challenge Cup final in July attracted a record-breaking amount of viewers on CBS ©Getty Images

This should be followed by the disclaimer that there has been hardly any chance to play women’s football in the US since, and many of the NWSL’s top players have since moved to teams in Europe in a quest for regular playing time. Regardless, the NWSL Challenge Cup attracted thousands of people who had not watched the league before and was a brilliant promoter of women’s sport.

Off the pitch, women’s sport made significant strides in 2020. The International Olympic Committee announced full gender equality in athlete participation will be achieved for the first time at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The European Olympic Committees also approved a motion to ensure there was a minimum of 30 per cent female representation on its Executive Committee.

The number of female Presidents in charge of Olympic International Federations increased to three as Annika Sörenstam was elected to lead the International Golf Federation. This number is still pitifully low, but it was a step in the right direction. A number of International Federations also worked to implement gender policy within their own organisations, including hockey, equestrian, rowing and surfing.

There seemed to be notable progress in American sport. Kim Ng was named general manager of the Miami Marlins, becoming the first woman to hold such a role in Major League Baseball history. Right at the end of the year, Becky Hammon became the first woman to serve as head coach in a National Basketball Association game after Gregg Popovich was ejected during the San Antonio Spurs clash with Los Angeles Lakers. 

In short, despite the significant obstacles presented by the pandemic, there were still some positive moments for women’s sport in 2020. In some situations, there was even progress in the battle to achieve gender equality in sport. Female athletes have shown resilience to ensure they have not completely disappeared from the conversation.

Nonetheless, there is no way that women’s sport has gained as much momentum as was expected back in March after the conclusion of the ICC Women's T20 World Cup. There can not be complacency when women's sport returns on a more regular basis, which will hopefully happen this year. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women's sport may not have been as bad as feared, and has even offered some opportunity, but there is a long way to go to ensure 86,000 spectators return to events featuring female athletes when normality resumes.