By Ekkaphab Phanthavong
Despite being affected by COVID-19 restrictions, the Tokyo 2020 Games were held successfully last summer amid hardships due to the prolonged pandemic. It proved that sports have not lost its ability to bring global communities together in the spirit of sportspersonship and unity, and sent messages of perseverance, hope, and resilience.
Apart from spreading positive vibes and messages, the Tokyo 2020 Games also gave us positive energy and allowed us reprieve from all the negative news. It was a particularly historic moment for ASEAN, as all three Olympic gold medals came from women athletes: Indonesia’s badminton doubles team Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu, Philippines’ weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, and Thailand’s taekwondo athlete Panipak Wongpattanakit. While, in Paralympic Games, approximately 30% of all medals obtained by ASEAN countries were obtained by women para athletes.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is the most gender-balanced games since its establishment. This year, women make up 48.8 percent of the 11,000 Olympians, increased from 45.6 percent in 2016 and 44.2 percent in 2012. It all happened despite all the COVID-19 adversities and restrictions affecting the world’s socio-economic growth.
ASEAN is committed to ensure full access to opportunities that will help women and girls thrive and actively participate in all decisions that affect building their livelihoods and independence—including in sports. Building on such momentum, as long-time dialogue partners, ASEAN and Japan join hand in hand to promote gender equality in and through sports.
This started back in 2017, when ASEAN and Japan set priorities for cooperation in sports and agreed to work together in strengthening the participation of women and girls in sports and advancing sports for persons with disabilities, among others, in the light of Tokyo 2020 Games.
Last 3 December, coinciding with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, ASEAN Secretariat hosted the virtual ASEAN #WeScore Talk Show.
This event forms part of a Japan-funded Campaign, ASEAN #WeScore, involving ten appointed women in sports ambassadors: Her Royal Highness Princess ‘Azemah Ni’matul Bolkiah (Bruneian polo athlete), Sokha Pov (Cambodian traditional martial arts athlete), Leani Ratri Oktila (Indonesian para-badminton athlete, gold and silver medalist of Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games), Soulamphone Kerdla (Lao PDR’s national swimming team head coach of), Farah Ann Abdul Hadi (Malaysian gymnast), Soe Soe Myar (taekwondo athlete and referee from Myanmar), Hidilyn Diaz (Filipino weightlifter), Amita Berthier (Singaporean fencer), Panikpak Wongpattanakit (Thai taekwondo athlete), and Tuyet Van Chau (Vietnamese taekwondo athlete).
Appointed by their respective countries as role models, the lineup of ambassadors demonstrates the value of inclusion and diversity in sports: male and female dominated sports, modern and traditional sports, and—Olympic and Paralympic Games.
For many years, we have known that female athletes and sport professionals across the world continue to experience gender discrimination and even violence. Going back to the proportion of female population in the region, the low recognition of social values on participation and achievements of women and girls in sports, as well as doubts in women’s leadership and negotiation skills to take lead in the sports sector might slow down our growth in the sports industry as a whole.
Representation matters. Thus, the remarkable accomplishment and leadership of our ten women sports ambassadors in their respective fields is something that ASEAN tries to amplify to inspire and connect people across the region, including youth, in many ways. Using sports to raise awareness to educate the public about gender equality, inclusion, and resilience is something that the region should and will pursue.
Drawing from the conversation with the ten women sports ambassadors, ASEAN needs to think beyond women’s and girl’s achievements in sports activities and competitions. Paying attention to women’s leadership and career paths in sports institutions, their safety and protection, as well as stronger support to para sports platforms are measures that the region will make in order to keep our athletes motivated and able to thrive in any uncertainties.
For the next five years, the ASEAN sports sector will strengthen cooperation towards an active ASEAN Community where sports grow with integrity and serve an essential means in advancing socio-cultural development and promoting peace, guided by the ASEAN Work Plan on Sports 2021-2025.
As stated in the 2013 Vientiane Declaration on Sports Cooperation in ASEAN by the sports ministers, the region’s cooperation in sports has to be strengthened in realising the vision of an ASEAN Community to forge a common regional identity—and build a caring and sharing society.
Ekkaphab Phanthavong is the Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.