The cascading impact of empowering women

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EHF / Courtney Gahan

A core theme underlying the EHF EURO 2022 is the empowerment of women. That message has been featured throughout the event — occurring naturally on the field, but also off it, from the theme of the official song ‘Play with heart’ by Senidah to the use of female voices in the media coverage and the telling of many stories of women in the game.

“I always love that theme and especially in the tournament like this, where I I feel like every woman going on the field, every woman being here, is empowered. I think it’s a strong signal to send, that we do have female judges, and we do have strong, female players who want to fight,” says Denmark back Mie Højlund.

As the dedicated journalist for the EHF EURO 2022 newsletter, it has been my task, honour and joy to share the stories of the women around the tournament, whether they be on the court fighting for their countries or working in some other capacity. I have long believed in the important role the players have in empowering people, especially women and girls, as well as showing others the power of women and why equality is important.

On the surface level, it is ‘just’ sport. There are trophies to be won, athletes focused solely on the goal of reaching their best performance and hopefully being rewarded with a medal, and matches to be played. But there is no question that, being in the public eye, all handball athletes have the chance to inspire others — whether they realise it or not.

Talking to Hungary centre back Petra Vamos, who is still only 22 although she has already been in the national team for three years, it becomes clear this awareness of the role in the public eye may be something that comes later. For now, Vamos is focused on herself, but even that can be an example for others.

“I’m trying to focus on myself and my goals,” says Vamos. “I think the key is that you have to work hard and focus on yourself because the hard work always pays off.”

France centre back Grace Zaadi has been around longer and won every national team championship. The current Olympic champion is more aware of her position as a role model.  

“I like to be this badass on the court and try to be an example for a lot of women. We are all very different, but all the same at the same time,” says Zaadi. “It is very good to show this unity and that there are women who can do a great job and spread good vibes.”

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It is not only about inspiring the next generations of handball players. There are other lessons that people young and old can take from handball athletes — the choice to dedicate yourself to a goal and strive towards achieving it with your best effort, ideals such as inclusivity and equality, and trying again after a failure. The point is that people are watching and observing different actions and characteristics of the players all the time, and they can take either positive or negative lessons from them, so there is some level of responsibility that comes with the role of elite athlete.

For Norway right back Nora Mørk, the most important is the knowledge that she and her teammates can inspire others to realise there is not one way to be a woman and the idea of women has been changing.

“What’s important for us and also for me is to inspire women and female athletes, that you can also be tough and still feminine and stuff like that. I think it’s so cool that strong is popular now and also to be fit and everything. And I love the way that you can express yourself in the game even as a female athlete,” says Mørk, who has been top scorer of every major national team championship at least once, among many other accolades.

When I was growing up, there was an expression heard more often than it is now: “You throw like a girl.” What used to be intended as an insult should actually be a compliment — you want to tell me I throw like a girl, i.e., Mørk, Zaadi or Cristina Neagu? Thank you!

It is not only women who can be empowered by the players. Aside from empowerment and inspiration, female athletes also have a key role in showing young boys that women are powerful and deserving of equal respect — something important for them to see as they grow into the men that will interact with women in different settings.

It is impossible that any young boy watching Mørk or Zaadi and their teammates achieve their success will not grow up to respect women and believe in their strength, and that in turn is a vital part of equality for all — all groups are important in the empowerment of those that need to be lifted up. And why is equality itself important? When everyone is empowered, we then have greater collective strength to deal with challenges that people all face together.

20221114 EURO Empower Quote
What’s important for us and also for me is to inspire women and female athletes, that you can also be tough and still feminine and stuff like that. I think it’s so cool that strong is popular now and also to be fit and everything. And I love the way that you can express yourself in the game even as a female athlete.
Nora Mørk
Norway right back

Of course, it is not only about guiding young boys or men to the ‘right’ idea of women — they may also choose these female athletes as their own inspiration, and the positive idea of women is reinforced in that context as well. 

Zaadi knows there is some way to go before equality is truly existent everywhere:

“I think women are not equal to men right now in handball and other categories, but we come from far away, so things are starting to get a bit better. We all know that truth, because it’s 2022 and everybody wants to put women there, like, feminism and everything, but we are doing the same job as men on the court and we just want this to be recognised.”

One athlete who is aware of her platform in terms of inspiring and supporting others in some way aside from with handball specifically is Sweden centre back Jenny Carlson, who has an Instagram page dedicated to raising awareness to living life to the maximum while having a stoma.

“I wanted to reach out to people and to help people, especially when I am a situation that I am a handball player and I play professionally and not a lot of people do that with the stoma. So, I wanted to show that it’s possible to continue with your life,” says Carlson, before commenting on the more general role of female athletes as role models.

“It’s important, but I think it’s important overall for women to take more places. Especially now, more and more, everyone understands that we can also play sports and it shows a lot, with handball and football and everywhere. So I think it’s just important that we take the place — and when we get it, we need to to use it.”

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From an Australian sprinter to European handball players

For me personally, the realisation of the part these players have as role models came on reflection of my own idols growing up: two-time Olympic medallist and two-time world champion in the 400 m sprint, Cathy Freeman. I was 14 years old watching Freeman become the first Indigenous Australian to win a solo Olympic gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, after she had lit the Olympic torch to open the Games.

Her gold medal win has often been described and voted as the greatest moment in Australian sports history. I cannot speak for the Indigenous community, but I understood it to be very meaningful at the time, and it was for those beyond as well, including a younger me dreaming of what I might do in my life as a girl from an essentially unheard-of place in Australia.

And now I am an Australian at her ninth EHF EURO and the voice of the official newsletter — a fact that hardly makes sense! But has come from feeling empowered by the women who went before me and the women and men who helped to empower me. Freeman was such an important inspiration in that context, and I know these players on court at the EHF EURO 2022 are doing the same for so many others. It is a pleasure to help bridge that gap between the elite athletes and those watching them.

It is all connected. I was inspired by one female athlete, and now get to help the female athletes in front of me empower other people, and who knows what those who are inspired by these players will take from them to apply to their own life and then bring to the world. Every little bit helps and that is why the empowerment of the women at this EHF EURO 2022 is so important.

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