Ex-Olympian talks Games enthusiasm, gender issues

Former national team rower, now RRU prof Jennifer Walinga believes Canadians were swept up in the Rio Games

Jennifer Walinga

The Summer Olympics in Rio had its share of controversies, from corruption and poverty within the host nation to discrepancies between how women and men were portrayed in the media.

But by the time the Olympic flame was snuffed out, one thing was clear: Canada simply couldn’t get enough of sport’s biggest spectacle.

The 2016 Games were the most watched in Canadian history, showing an 11-per-cent increase in viewership over the 2012 Games in London.

The power of sport remains strong, says Jennifer Walinga, director of the school of communications and culture at Royal Roads University and a former Olympic rower. She says the buzz around this year’s Games was evident all around the West Shore.

“People know that I’ve been to the Olympics a couple times and had success at that level, so they always want to get into conversations with me around the Olympics,” she said.

“Ninety per cent of the people that I interact with at Royal Roads are just like me and they want to talk about all the different stories.”

This enthusiasm is encouraging for Walinga, as she worries about the reputation of sport in the wake of corruption and doping scandals.

“I think the Russian (track and field) ban was really impactful and I think it’s encouraging for those who are losing heart, because it shows that we’re doing something about it,” she said.

Gender issues came to the forefront of the discussion around the Games at multiple junctures. The largest Canadian controversy stemmed from comments made by a former rower and friend of Walinga.

Adam Kreek, who was part of the men’s eight team that took gold at the 2008 Games, made comments that criticized tennis star Genie Bouchard for focusing too much on her looks and not enough on her game.

Walinga believes the criticism of Kreek was unfair.

“I’m not sure he meant them to be sexist but people interpreted them as such,” she said.

Still, Walinga was pleased that issues surrounding sexism were discussed during the Olympics.

“I think it’s something that we need to address and a lot of people need to start thinking about women as athletes,” she said.

The former world champion rower doesn’t believe support for female athletes has gotten better since she left rowing in 1992.

“There’s financial support for women, but the actual support by the public to come and watch a women’s sporting event is still very low compared to a man’s,” she said.

With her expertise in the field of communications, Walinga can say with a measure of authority that the onus lies with the media to ensure that the level of support improves.

“As a communications professor, I think it really depends on us as media … to discuss it in that way and to highlight this for what it actually represents.

“People are mentioning in the media that 75 per cent of the medals were won by women, but then they don’t take it another step and say that means that women are incredibly capable, they are just as athletic as men … We need to start acknowledging them as athletes and make something out of this fact.”

Some of the biggest stories of the Olympics from a Canadian perspective included the performance of young athletes like Penny Oleksiak and Andre de Grasse.

Walinga said she was inspired in her youth following the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and believes there’s something special in the way the Games can ignite a passion for sport in children.

“There’s something that captures kids about the Olympics. When I show them my Olympic medal or World Championship medal, they just light up and I don’t see that flickering or dying in any way.”


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