Spain’s sporting Cinderellas

Female athletes have outperformed their male colleagues with fewer resources

Over three million people watched Spain’s synchronized swimming team perform in London.
Over three million people watched Spain’s synchronized swimming team perform in London.GETTY IMAGES

The clock has struck midnight, and it’s time for Cinderella to put away her tracksuit, collect her Olympic medals, and return home to the harsh reality facing women athletes in Spain, where the ongoing depression is prompting further funding cuts and subsidy slashes to women’s sports clubs and federations.

Women made up 114 of the 250 athletes that represented Spain in the London Games, and of the country’s 17 medals, 11 were won by female participants: 65 percent. Some people are against differentiating between the achievements of female and male athletes, arguing they are equally valid, regardless of gender. Not so. Admittedly, there have been considerable advances in women’s sport over recent decades, illustrated by the increase in female athletes taking part in recent Olympic Games — this time round, women made up almost 45 percent, up from 42 percent in Beijing, and a big improvement on the 23 per cent in Los Angeles in 1984 and the just over 13 percent at the 1964 Tokyo Games. But Spanish female athletes, like their sisters around the world, face a tougher struggle than their male counterparts. The successes of Spain’s women at the London Olympic Games, and the brief media coverage they received — usually referred to as “girls” — does not reflect the true situation confronting them.

Barcelona 1992 remains the high water mark for Spanish athletics generally, and particularly for women, with 125 female athletes out of a total team of 422. It should be borne in mind that there were barely 30 women athletes in the 229-member Spanish team at the Seoul Games in 1988, and that the Korean Games produced Spain’s first female medal winner. But the collapse of the Spanish economy over the last four years threatens to erase the progress made over the last two decades, and not just for women athletes. Regional and local governments are cutting spending across the board, but sports and the arts have been hit hardest, and few big-name sponsors are stepping in to fill the funding breach.

Growing numbers of athletes who compete in team sports are now joining leagues in other countries, where they can make a living. Women’s handball illustrates all too clearly the precarious situation facing many professional female athletes in Spain.

The Spanish women’s handball team won bronze at the 2011 World Cup, as well as at this year’s Olympics. Nevertheless, the side’s nine members, along with 13 other players, have all signed for non-Spanish clubs in recent years. The reason, says Carmen Manchado, a former player and the current director of the Spanish committee of the European Handball Federation, is simple: “It isn’t possible to make a living from this sport in Spain. We are back where we were 20 years ago,” she says.

“It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, and in just two years, the whole thing has fallen apart,” says Manchado. She cites the financial problems facing handball sides, which often mean they have to make their own transport arrangements to get to games — not that this has affected their performance. Manchado estimates that only a “couple of sides” of the 14 playing at top level in Spain “have managed to avoid getting into debt this season.” Women’s handball clubs are not required by law to set aside funding to pay wages for players. Manchado believes they should be — “around 80 percent of sides would have paid wages otherwise.” As a result, very few women handball players are able to make a living from the game and often get into debt over the course of a season.

This contrasts with the experience of male players, she says, who are paid. “Almost all of the women players are students or are working, depending on their side,” says Manchado. “That is why they end up playing for the most powerful leagues, like the French.”

The talent drain means Spanish sides are having problems putting teams together. One example is Itxako Navarra, eight of whose players were on the bronze-winning Spanish side. The team won the Spanish league and cup titles last season, and was a finalist in the European league. It has managed to retain just two of the 16 players it had at the end of last season.

The side was heavily subsidized and had managed to attract substantial sponsorship, but both these sources of income have dried up, resulting in delays in paying its players. It now faces problems competing in the upcoming season. Manchado says the only positive outcome of the financial crisis facing women’s handball in Spain is that up-and-coming players are being given more opportunities to play. “But that in itself won’t mean much if they aren’t able to play alongside experienced professionals who they can learn from.”

The long-term outcome is clear, says Manchado: “Standards will fall in the Spanish league, because we won’t be able to pay salaries,” which in turn will mean a weaker national side. She adds: “We will also lose role models, which are essential to increase our skills base.”

The problems affecting female handball in Spain are being played out to varying degrees across a range of other sports. For example, women’s basketball has so far better withstood the crisis, which means that sides have largely been able to pay their top players. Spain’s Women’s Basketball Federation has more than 136,000 members, four times that of handball, and women’s basketball is regulated by a collective wage agreement — the only one of its kind in Spanish sports.

Spain’s female basketball sides are required by law to place a cash deposit at the beginning of each season to cover debts in the event of non-payment. Unlike other female athletes, women basketball players in Spain can draw unemployment benefit. Nevertheless, the sport is now facing difficulties as a result of the crisis. The first side to hit problems has been Valencia-based Ros Casares, which won the European Championship in March and the Spanish league in May. In June the side went bankrupt. Beset by funding problems, it lost its sponsor, and the regional government of Valencia, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy itself, has been unable to make up the difference. Most of its best players have already signed up for foreign teams. Other sides no longer able to compete at the highest level are Celta de Vigo, Ibiza, Mallorca, and Zaragoza.

The luckier sides have at least managed to struggle on in the second division, playing with rookies. Spain’s top-flight league has now shrunk to 11 clubs, losing three sides that were unable even to raise the 70,000-euro deposit required to compete.

Celta and Ibiza were unable to continue once regional government funding was withdrawn. Which raises the question as to why women’s sport is seen as secondary to men’s? Following the success of Spain’s female athletes in London, some medal winners have highlighted the difficulties they faced, and the lack of institutional support, and called for more resources to be put into women’s sport, as well as for more coverage in the media.

The media responds that male sports fans far outnumber women, while female athletes say that interest in women’s events would increase if the public were made more aware of what was going on, and point to coverage of sports previously ignored in Spain until a notable athlete does well internationally. They believe that better coverage of women’s events would spark greater interest among sports fans of both sexes.

State broadcaster RTVE’s viewing figures suggest they may be right, at least as far as high-profile occasions such as the Olympics is concerned. More than three million people (25 percent of viewers) watched the synchronized team swimming event that earned Spain a bronze, while 1.2 million watched wrestler Maider Unda. The women’s water polo team that won silver was watched by 1.8 million. There has also been debate over increased coverage of women’s sport in the United Kingdom: 20 of Team GB’s medals were won by women.

Britain’s shadow health minister, Andy Burnham, told the BBC that he felt the media has so far failed to reflect the dynamic women’s sports scene, and that once the Olympics were over, female athletes would largely disappear from public view. “It’s the old excuse about nobody being interested in women’s sport, and it just isn’t like that any more. We have to get rid of that myth,” said Burnham.

But Spanish female athletes are skeptical. “We will once again be forgotten,” said soccer player Mary Paz Vilas after the Olympics ended, adding, “and this despite the fact that millions of people around the world have been able to see the quality of female players with their own eyes. In a week’s time, we will be back to talking only about men’s football,” she predicted.

Estefanía Hernández, the European taekwondo champion, is also critical of what she sees as the outdated attitudes of newspapers and sports papers to covering women’s sport. “Nobody had heard of us, and then suddenly, all those medals. This is the ideal moment to end the stereotypes and that young women and girls get more involved in sport,” she says.

Women are still significantly under-represented at the top levels of sport than men: only 20 percent of athletes licensed to compete at national and international level are women, which explains their limited representation at the Olympic Games. Benilde Vázquez, one of the founders of the Women’s Sport Commission within the Spanish Olympic Committee, says women athletes “do not enjoy the same opportunities as men,” because most funding and resources automatically go to men’s sports.

Vázquez believes that a larger initiative is necessary to raise both the profile of female athletes and the funding available to women’s sport. “Part of the problem is that our society still doesn’t expect women to take on the role of an athlete; this is why women’s clubs and federations are being hit hardest by the spending cuts. Sponsors do not treat women’s clubs as seriously as they do men’s, and the same applies to the media, sports management organizations, trainers, and even families, and much less a broader acceptance in society.”

The limited, but increased equality that Spain’s female athletes have enjoyed is in large part due to the Support for Olympic Sport (ADO), an organization set up in 1988 in a bid to help sportsmen and women in the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games. Athletes “receive help according to their event and the achievements of each athlete in the Olympic Games,” says the ADO. “The amounts involved are negotiated every four years and are the same for men and women in each discipline.”

Each sports federation is tasked with sharing out funding among its athletes. None is prepared to release figures breaking down the amounts according to gender. “The expenses paid to members of the women’s handball team in the run-up to the Athens Games of 2004 were ridiculous compared to the sums given to the men’s side,” says Manchado. She adds that part of the problem is also the lack of women sitting on the committees that decide on funding.

“The bigger a federation’s budget, the fewer the number of women sitting on its board,” says Vázquez. “Female athletes face the same issues of inequality as other women, but much more deeply.” The problem, she believes, is a perception that equality is about performing at the same level as men. “We need greater equality of opportunity, after all, women are different from men.”

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