Open letter to the competent Ministers and Secretaries of State (Federal, Regional, Community: Sport, Equal Opportunities, Urbanism, Education, Health) and to all Belgian media.

Mr Alexander De Croo, Mr Frank Vandenbroucke, Mrs Sarah Schlitz, Mr Rudi Vervoort, Mr Jan Jambon, Mr Elio Di Rupo, Mr Oliver Paasch, Mr Pierre-Yves Jeholet, Mr Frédéric Daerden, Mrs Bénédicte Linard, Mrs Valérie Glatigny, Mrs Caroline Désir, Mrs Christie Morreale Jean- Luc Crucke, Mrs Nawal Ben Hamou, Mr Pascal Smet, Mr Bart Somers, Mr Ben Weyts, Mr Wouter Beke, Mr Benjamin Dalle, Mrs Isabelle Weyckmans, Mr Antonios Antoniadis and Mrs Lydia Klinkenberg.

A few months before the postponed Tokyo Olympics, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), proudly declared: “At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer, we will have achieved gender balance with 48.8% women among the participating athletes.” This is progress, but does it mean equality and equity? What is the proportion of female coaches, referees, officials, managers, administrators, doctors, physiotherapists, commentators, journalists and sports writers in the sports delegations? It is not a scoop to say that this percentage will remain far too low in 2021. Have sports been created by men for men? The fact that women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling suggests they have.

Despite the decrees signed by our politicians, the good intentions, the ethical charters and the (self-)satisfied speeches of our sports authorities, the reality on the ground is the same as what the audio-visual and media sector shows us: the spotlight is almost exclusively on men’s teams and women’s sporting performances are not treated with the same vocabulary (when men make ‘genius passes’, ‘one-footed battles’, ‘anthology goals’, ‘stratospheric jumps’, etc., female athletes are regularly portrayed in ways that emphasize their supposed femininity, heterosexuality and various primary sexist criteria over their athletic skills).

It takes exceptional women like Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Nafissatou Thiam (to name but a few) to draw media attention to women’s sports. Worse still, the media contributes to a sexist and negative view of the image of women practising intensive and/or competitive physical activities. Girls and female teenagers lack role models and sportswomen find it more difficult to go professional because of this invisibilisation.

It is well known that pay inequalities affect all professional sectors. However, the sports sector is a poor performer, as demonstrated by a quick comparison of club contracts, sponsorships or prize money for women and men. If the subsidised contracts (Adeps, Bloso, ACS…) are the same for all genders, the sports federations will have little to account for in terms of the management of their budgets (which come from public funds, remember).

We have noted unjustified differences in investment between men’s and women’s teams within many federations. For example, the national equipment for women’s teams only comes from men’s stock, women’s teams get less elaborate sports programming women,

physiotherapists are mostly present at men’s or mixed camps but not necessarily at women’s camps, and men get larger individual grants.

Beyond the participation statistics or the number of sports financed, on closer examination, serious questions arise: what is the budgetary ratio, the efforts and the support granted to one versus the other (‘men’s’ vs. ‘women’s’ sport, men’s vs. women’s team sport, women’s vs. men’s Belgian/regional/provincial teams, men’s vs. women’s competition circuit, development opportunities for one versus the other, etc.)? These are all questions already asked in Canada by Dr. Guylaine Demers.

Of course, these discriminations do not only concern elite sports. Deconstruction and education work should be carried out in all clubs and schools (sports classes and playgrounds), from kindergarten onwards, where tomorrow’s adults meet and are brought up.

The practice of sport, regardless of the level and age category, is a space conducive to the development and emancipation of each individual. Opening up sports to girls and women allows them to free themselves from cultural or religious constraints and to be confronted with a situation where mixing genders is normal. It is also a public health issue, since the regular practice of sports promotes better mental and physical health and would reduce – among other things – the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular problems in women.

In order to allow everyone to flourish in the practice of a physical activity, all responsible people, representing the universal values of Sports or supervising youth groups and sports teams, should imperatively be trained in the fight against discriminatory and sexist conduct.

This fight also takes place in urban public spaces, which are predominantly occupied by men. Even if these places are – in principle – accessible to all, outdoor sports facilities and playgrounds illustrate a real segregation of girls and adolescent women. This de facto male occupation does not make the public space hospitable for them.

Finally, we would like to denounce the serious gender-based violence in sport and the omertà concerning the psychological and physical abuse of which many sportswomen and — men are victims. There is a real problem with the liberation of speech, which goes hand in hand with the general impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these unacceptable acts. This impunity is a direct result of the attitude of the responsible structures which are reluctant to protect their athletes, the rare cases reported being – the vast majority of the time – covered up. It is clear that this can even backfire on the ‘female whistle-blower’, who often prefers not to assert her rights so as not to see her career destroyed.

Because of the toxic mechanisms of the environment (conditioning to suffering, submission to authority and the politics of winning medals ‘at all cost’), sportswomen have no alternative in case of slips. (Example of concrete cases: My ex-coach called my mother and me “sluts” in front of the technical director. The federation told him “not to do it again” / I filed a complaint against a coach for sexual and moral harassment, my federation protected him / March 2021: A club coach has been sentenced to 12 months in prison, with the courts pointing to “a risk of recidivism in the context of his duties in the supervision of minors” when

his underage pupil complained about groping and indecent assault. The sports federation decided not to remove him from his duties, pending the appeal verdict and citing the ‘presumption of innocence’, which must certainly be respected, but not to the detriment of a necessary respect for the principle of prudence).

Laws have been passed, but what use are they if they are not applied? How many female athletes have been left behind on the side of tracks, fields, pools, dojos, etc., and how many generations have been sacrificed?

In the summer of 2021 – one year after the IOC President’s fine statements – Belgian sportswomen and men will proudly defend the Belgian colours in Tokyo. Every athlete will try to outdo herself or himself and Sport, in all its disciplines and diversity, will hold its great celebration.

You are the keepers of our democracy. You have committed yourselves to fight against all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on gender. It is your duty to take all the necessary measures to respect the ‘Rights of Men and Women’. So, what are you waiting for to put an end to the invisibilisation and segregation, both in their specific sphere and in the public space, of which sportswomen are victims?

We are addressing this request to you, so that for the next Olympic Games in Paris 2024, we can really look forward to effective equality and fairness between boys and girls, men and women, in all sports disciplines.

Counting on your understanding and support, please accept, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ministers and Secretaries of State, our respectful greetings.

The Belgian Sports Movement.

They already have signed a petition why not you ?

Charline Van Snick, Sofie Gierts, Justine Henin, Jolien D’Hoore, Ryad Merhy, Cynthia Bolingo, Emma Meesseman, Chloé Caulier, Anna Van Bellinghen, Fanny Appes, Lola Mansour, Jill Boon, Eline Berings, Elise Vanderelst, Claire Michel, Camille Laus, Luana Debatty, Fanny Smets, Cecile Blondiau, Alessia Corrao, Amandine Verstappen, Renaud Barral, Licai Pourtois, Mohammed El Marcouchi, Thalya Culot, Jean-François Lenvain, Laurence Rase, Joy Jouret, Carole Bam, Fabrice Flamand, Nadia Bertrand, Lucas Buonopane, Damien Bomboir, Mathias Jardin, Laurine Delforge, Mehdi Datoussaid, David Letor, Dany Closset, Jean Colinet, Damien Brevers, Apolline Vranken, Marie-France Zicot CEMEA, Aurélie Aromatario, Tous à Bord, Minh-Lan Nguyen, et Anne Looze, Janice Cayman, Julie Biesmans, Davina Philtjens, Catherine Lallemand.

If you want to support sportswomen, so that they have the same chances and opportunities for development, please sign our letter