Retired World No 1 Squash Champion Datuk Nicol David Wants To See More Inclusion In Sports

By Chong Jinn Xiung

The former Malaysian national player discusses the state of gender equality in sports today and her plans to nurture the next generation of squash champions

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Former national squash player Datuk Nicol David
Cover  Retired Malaysian squash champion Datuk Nicol David is the longest-reigning world no 1 in the history of the sport

Women's professional sports have been gaining more popularity over the past decade. In 2019, the FIFA Women's World Cup France attracted a total of 1.12 billion viewers across all platforms, a record number for the competition. In the United States alone, the women's final match between USA and Netherlands that year also drew 22 percent more viewers than the 2018 men's finals. There is also a rise in interest in TV rights and sponsorship deals for women's sports, Deloitte reports.

Despite the progress, retired Malaysian squash legend Datuk Nicol David knows there's still much to be done to improve gender equality in sports. And she's ready to help.

One of the first things she talks about is educating more parents to see sports as a viable career path for their daughters. "Sports, unfortunately, continues to be seen as an unprofessional path to a secure future. We need to break that mindset that it can't be a sustainable and successful career," says David, who started playing squash professionally at age 17.

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David, who was the longest-reigning world no 1 in the history of squash, also points out that another key issue is ensuring that the funds provided to national sports associations are distributed to male and female athletes fairly and equally, based on merit. In the world of basketball, for instance, the average salary for players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is US$6.4 million, while players in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) only take home US$71,635 on average. The NBA justifies the pay differences as a result of the men's games having larger audiences and commanding more lucrative broadcast rights deals.

In fact, while viewership numbers are rising, women's sports remain extremely underrepresented in the media compared to men's sports. A study by the University of Southern California and Purdue University found that 95 percent of TV coverage in the US focused on men’s sports in 2019. Their coverage on social media is similarly dismal. 

There is also often a gap in the amount of prize money awarded to female champions and their male counterparts within the same tournament. "When I was a professional athlete, the prize money was not equal for men and women. Men's games got the best venues, the biggest sponsors, and there were more tournaments throughout the year," says David.

So she took matters into her own hands and used her privileged position as leverage to equalise the field for all players. "I started rejecting invitations to compete in tournaments where the prize money for women was not equal to men," she says. "This eventually paid off when the Professional Squash Association guaranteed equal prize money to all participants, and it has since maintained those standards."

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Above  In the second quarter of this year, David will launch a foundation aimed at empowering underprivileged children through squash and education

Often, gender inequality in sports can be attributed to the lack of female decision-makers in sports governing bodies. Until today, most sports organisations are run by men. Both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, for example, have never been led by a woman since their respective inceptions more than a century ago. According to the Sydney Scoreboard Global Index for Women in Sport Leadership, men held 93 percent of chair or resident roles and 81 percent of chief executive positions at international sport federations in 2016. The report also points out that women chaired only 7 percent of international sports federations in 2016. 

For David, building an inclusive culture in sports benefits everyone and not just women. Knowing firsthand the positive effects that sports can have on one's life, she is working to establish a foundation with her long-time friend, Mariana de Reyes, to provide underprivileged children in Malaysia with the opportunity to experience what she did.

The Nicol David Organisation, which launches in the second quarter of this year, aims to nurture in girls and boys the values of positivity, confidence and respect through sports and education. Its first programme, Little Legends, will include squash and English lessons and is expected to run over five years, with 50 children accepted each year.

"I believe that creating an inclusive environment where children can learn, play and grow together will be my biggest contribution to creating equality for all," says David. "This is my mission and purpose moving forward."

See more Gen.T honourees from the Sports category of the Gen.T List

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