Sports for women beyond our borders

Grete Eliassen sits down with two-time U.S. national fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad.

DANA POINT, Calif. -- When my daughters have a tough time choosing between ice skating, rock climbing and tennis for a fall sports class, it's easy to take the gains of Title IX for granted. Sports fields in the United States are, for the most part, shared by boys and girls, and high schools are required by law to make sports equally available for girls.

When I went overseas with the State Department last spring, it was clear to see that these gains are not universally shared. And, just like politics, access to sports is a local issue.

On Thursday, I was able to host a Global Perspectives in Sports panel at espnW's Women + Sports Summit to explore what it's like to be an advocate for women's sports across continents. We had four panelists who, on the surface, may not have seemed to have much in common.

The panelists: Luz Amuchastegui, a field hockey player from Argentina who just completed the three-week Global Sports Mentoring Program run by espnW and the State Department; Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer on the U.S. national team and first Muslim woman to compete for the United States internationally; Mehman Karimov, an advisor on international programs for the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan; and Grace Kiraguri owns a sports event production business in Kenya.

A few issues kept recurring in our conversation Thursday:

Finding a comfort zone: Different sports fit different sensibilities, and no one wants to stick out because they can't be like everyone else. Muhammad stumbled upon fencing and realized her hijab, or headscarf, would never be an issue because her head is completely covered for competition. Bonus points: Muhammad talked about "changing weapons" in her sport. Do not mess with her.

It's not about sports: Kiraguri has never played sports and thought it would be a good way to make money, but now she sees that it's a vehicle for mentorship and empowerment. She noted the confidence of the athletes she has met, and what it does for demeanor and ability to speak. Those qualities are what she'd like to see in girls growing up in Nairobi.

Building from the ground up: Azerbaijan didn't have a national soccer team when it was picked to host the U-17 World Cup in 2012, so the former Soviet Union had to build it from scratch. For Karimov, who finds that many conservative families don't see the value in letting their girls play on a team, the key is talking about health. Healthy girls become healthy mothers, and getting the entire family active gets girls into sports. Azerbaijan got its soccer team up and running in time to compete, and has doubled the number of teams in the past year.

Access isn't just about gender: Amuchastegui said girls in Argentina can play sports if they like, but only girls from more affluent families do. If a family struggles, getting their kids into sports isn't a priority. For her, it's about providing the opportunities and passion for kids to play, particularly if they come from an impoverished background.

espnW's Women + Sports Summit is about the exchange of ideas; during the Q&A period of our panel, one woman volunteered to share her grassroots strategies from experiences in New York City. Another asked how she could host a woman in the next GSMP class.

It turned out that many of the men and women in the room shared a common hope -- that, some day, access to sports won't depend on borders, but on desire. It's just a matter of figuring out how we get there from here.

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