x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

An Olympian's message

Donna de Varona, a campaigner for female athletes believes the region must prove it is serious about women's sport.

Donna de Varona was an Olympic swimmer at 13.
Donna de Varona was an Olympic swimmer at 13.

Donna de Varona has made a career of breaking down barriers - and particularly barriers in the world of sport. She competed in an Olympic Games at 13, won a gold medal four years later, and became the first female sports broadcaster in her native United States. After a sporting career that saw her set 18 world records, she retired in 1965 when she was still only 17, something she attributes to the inadequacy of women's collegiate athletics. She then devoted her time trying to improve the lot of women in sport.

She took up the cause of Title IX, a US law enacted in 1972, which sought to bring equal funding and support to collegiate athletics. Thirty-seven years later the law still protects funding and development of women's sports at university level in the United States. De Varona's broadcasting career allowed her the connections and public exposure to approach Billie Jean King after her famous tennis victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973.

King had become an icon: her win over Riggs was watched worldwide and made her a leading figure in the fight for respect in women's sport. "She was a superstar, she was very important because she was so visible, she was a change agent," said de Varona. The Women's Sports Foundation was established in 1974 and after working with the organisation for five years de Varona became president in 1979. Equality in sport is a message de Varona, who was in Abu Dhabi last week as part of the Festival of Thinkers conference held by the Higher Colleges of Technology, is keen to spread.

She has first-hand experience of the spirit of equality engendered by an Olympic Games. "In 1960 an African-American man picked me up and put me on his shoulders to see the torch bearer, now this is a time when people were lynched for that but there was trust in this environment. it was there I realised that I wanted to be part of a global community," she said. "Swimming did many things for me, it made me realise that people are all the same, they all want to matter and they all want to make a difference"

With Dubai planning a bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, de Varona said she believes a city from the Middle East will win the right to host the event only if they focus more on advancing women's sports. She said the International Olympic Committee would look beyond eye-catching stadiums and would want to see signs of grass roots development. "If this region wants to host an Olympic Games then there will have to be a demonstration of interest in really promoting women's sports, because its part of the Olympic movement," she said.

De Varona thinks the region is taking the right steps and highlighted the recent additions of rugby sevens and golf to the Olympic schedule. "They didn't just introduce rugby for men, they added women's rugby and women's golf as well," she said. Dubai will face regional competition for the right to host in 2020 from Doha, who will attempt to resuscitate their unsuccessful 2016 campaign. De Varona believes Dubai would have the advantage because of the lack of women's sport in the Qatar Olympic set up.

"Doha do not have any women's sports in their Olympic programme and that does not go unnoticed," she said. @Email:sports@thenational.ae