Perspective | A walk in Australia, a walk in Iowa — and big steps for women’s sports

Perspective | A walk in Australia, a walk in Iowa — and big steps for women’s sports

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

IOWA CITY — Let’s take two walks in two hemispheres.

The first comes down Caxton Street in Brisbane toward Suncorp Stadium in the world’s utmost sports country, Australia, on a Saturday afternoon in August 2023. This walk has gotten loaded up with frenzy and maybe even a few other bloodstream elements. The familiar gold of Australia shirts has filled the pubs with the occasional Australia green sprinkled amid, and the air feels like nothing else in the world.

There’s a large sporting event in the vicinity, a World Cup quarterfinal between Australia and France coming shortly, and so outdoors in the winter sun the street fills curb-to-curb as the whole big blob edges toward the stadium. People chant and sing and play instruments. At one point they stop and kneel and sway in unison and sing, “Sha-la-la-la-la-la, we are the green and gold …”

Inside, as the seats fill, the great Sam Kerr of Australia’s soccer Matildas appears on the giant screen — just her face, sitting on a bench before the game, nothing splashy — and a large swell of cheering seems to stir right out of the guts of people who can’t even help it. It’s organic, unforced.

The second walk comes across Iowa City in the United States on a warmish Sunday morning in March 2024. It starts smack out of a hotel elevator and into a breakfast lobby with middle-aged men at three separate tables wearing shirts reading “Clark,” “Clark” and “Clark.” It continues across town and the Iowa River without much fanfare, but then it reaches an arena concourse on which so many of the people seem to have the surname Clark.

Sometimes you see a Clark seated alone or standing in a long concession line, but more often you see a Clark with another Clark, sometimes a Clark and Clark holding hands and then sometimes, if lucky, a Clark, a Clark and a Clark, all together. That doesn’t even count the one photo you might get of the stands, a single frame with, seriously, a Clark and a Clark on one row, a Clark, Clark and Clark just in front of that, and a Clark, Clark and Clark just across the aisle.

Down lower, as the seats fill, the great Caitlin Clark appears on the giant screen — headed out of the tunnel in a T-shirt and white croc-ish shoes, nothing splashy — and a large swell of cheering stirs right out of the guts of people who can’t even help it. It’s organic, unforced.

However you might define or interpret the moment of respect for the female athlete, the planet has reached one wowing juncture. It’s that point at which for some sporting events, you can’t really even tell which gender of sporting competition the people are walking and stirring and craving to see. The walks look the same, feel the same, sound the same, as if the buzzes have merged ideally.

It can feel as if a new generation has slid in quietly but unmistakably, and it’s full of people who lack the fear of powerful women — even those with some cheek, such as Clark, cupping her ear to the crowd after another picturesque assist. It’s an era of people who like sports, not just certain sports. It’s the generation in which male basketball stars such as Paolo Banchero or Victor Wembanyama start to arrive with their basketball-star mothers as first architects of their games. It’s one in which a magic-maker with three-point audacity comes whirling out of West Des Moines, and soon every-other-body seems to have the name Clark — the very young, the young, the middle-aged, the old.

They have shared in some fresh, unforeseeable experience, and their voices during games blare with their want. It’s a time when Clark heads for the Indiana Fever next season and Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel counts his blessings of future civic energy and storylines and texts, “I am sooooooooo lucky.”

He had nine “o’s” in there.

The great longtime columnist Mark Whicker, in January on his Substack, committed an act seldom seen in the country’s chronic squabbling, especially among the killjoys: research. He brought up numbers from everywhere and everything in women’s sports, including hockey and including the 19,598 for the volleyball Final Four in Tampa, the 59,042 at Emirates Stadium in London for Arsenal vs. Chelsea (later outdone by the 60,160 for Arsenal vs. Manchester United), the 200,000 fans for both Iowa and the dynastic South Carolina women’s basketball in 2022-23, the 9.9 million average viewers for the LSU-Iowa national final.

“There is no such thing as a series of outliers,” he wrote. “The world of women’s sports is not just having a moment. It is living the life that it created.” He saw the gathering good business sense and concluded: “Call it a moment if you must. It’s not momentary.”

After the moment Sunday in Iowa City, Coach Lisa Bluder said: “And next week, are you kidding? It’s going to be an amazing Big Ten tournament.”

That, too, is sold out — for the first time, in its case.

And as the firsts go around on their apparent way toward becoming seconds and thirds and fourths and routines, another state chimed in Sunday. Some 11,975 turned up in Charlottesville to see Virginia topple No. 5 Virginia Tech, 80-75, the largest women’s basketball crowd to date in the commonwealth.

Somebody asked Virginia Tech Coach Kenny Brooks about that, and Brooks, long since in the running for coolest guy on Earth, went on a calm-voiced rant, if such a thing exists. “And I watch the women’s game get disrespected,” he told reporters, “by people who have no idea how much work these kids put in. And for it finally to be recognized for what it should be as a beautiful sport, kids who work their asses off, kids who have so much pride in what they do, and then you get jerks sometimes on social media trying to downplay the women’s game. Makes me angry. And I saw something the other day, and Carmelo Anthony was talking about the women’s game, and he talked about the women’s game as the purest in its form because they play it the right way. And when you’ve got one of the greatest of all time telling you that, it makes fools on Twitter look silly.”

If only they could go for a walk …

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