Brazilian rugger Paula Ishibashi nominated as rugby athlete of the year in Brazil

Brazilian rugger Paula Ishibashi nominated as rugby athlete of the year: why is that a victory to us all?

Last week the Brazilian Olympic Committee announced the winners of this year’s Athlete of the Year Award, which highlights the most prominent athlete in each sport that will be a part of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing her play would say it is a no doubt deserved award for her to be proud of, on top of all the other regional awards granted to her in the past years. Novelty here is not the acknowledgement of her unique abilities, but the fact that this has been the first time the spotlight was given to a female rugby athlete in a gender dissociated award.

This is huge, not only due to the visibility it grants to Brazilian womens rugby, but because it sends an important message to all female athletes – not only in Brazil: if on the highest level of the game we are considered able to compete with male athletes in a national perspective, why should we, athletes in lower performance levels, accept that it is OK for female rugby players to get less visibility and respect than all the male players?

It has been said that in this specific occasion the female players competed with male athletes in equal conditions – which is a, to say the least, careless way of seeing things. We all know that a high performance athlete is not built overnight, and we all agree that the path for women athletes has always been much more difficult in terms of respect, visibility, investment and opportunities. If inequality is still a – hidden and perhaps subconscious –  part of high performance sports management policies around the world, is it really fair to say that every athlete competes for this award under the same conditions? Or was that another missed opportunity to acknowledge that Paula Ishibashi is not only an outstanding athlete – but a role model female athlete who has overcome much more severe challenges to turn herself into the best rugby athlete in Brazil this year?

Apart from the criticism regarding the approach to this award, it is – doubtless – a moment for us all women athletes to celebrate that this might be a symbolic turning point in the visibility granted to female rugby athletes in Brazil. And not only that: perhaps it is the perfect time for us all to start (or continue) to question why do some people still think it is normal and acceptable to treat women athletes unequally in a regular basis (i.e when they schedule the womens rugby matches in the worst parts of the day or in worse pitches). We all acknowledge that we are not the “second gender” – and we should accept to be the “second category” either.

Written by Marjorie Yuri Enya. To contact the author email

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