Women in sport: Crushing the invisible hurdles

By Gen Terblanche8 August 2023

Women in sport: Crushing the invisible hurdles

Critics agreed that Will Smith smashed it as Richard Williams, the father of tennis champion sisters Venus and Serena Williams, in the biographical sports drama film King Richard. But his Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for that role would get lost in the Williams sisters’ real-life trophy rooms. Venus collected 73 major tennis titles throughout her career, while Serena collected 98, and is widely celebrated as the greatest player of all time.  

Will Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard on Showmax

It’s great to be the GOAT, but in King Richard we also saw the sisters getting scolded for bragging, and made to watch Cinderella to remind them to stay humble. Novak Djokovic might get away with boasting, “I am the greatest tennis player. The other players are like coins in my pocket that I give to a homeless man.” But a woman owning her greatness? A proud Black woman? That’s another story … or eight stories.

The new Williams Sisters documentary has sourced the original footage of the interview session that Richard interrupted, when American reporter John McKenzie repeatedly questioned 14-year-old Venus Williams’s confidence, treating her belief in herself as if it was outlandish. The documentary also spotlights the disgraceful 2001 Indian Wells final when a crowd of 15 000 booed 19-year-old Serena throughout the match, shocking the game commentators at the time who directly said that it “smacks of racism”.

Nonetheless, Serena and Venus kept winning. The documentary goes on to show how they came to dominate not just women’s tennis, but the entire sport. They won so hard, in fact, that in 2007, Serena was able to successfully drive the call for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon and the French Open for the first time. Despite everything they faced, the Williams sisters made sure that their success meant a win for everyone.  

Watch Williams Sisters now on Showmax »

This Women’s Day, Showmax celebrates the sportswomen who’ve triumphed over not just their fellow competitors, but the gender-based challenges that steal their time and energy, and try to dim their shine. And as we watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup live on Showmax Pro, and push replay on the 2023 Netball Women’s World Cup, it’s time to hear from the players. This is what it takes to be number one. 

Equal Playing Field 

Equal Playing Field is on Showmax

In this utterly joyful documentary, 30 female soccer players from 30 different countries climb Mount Kilimanjaro together, then journey to the Dead Sea with their coaches, referees, and medical team, to play the highest and lowest matches in history. The doccie allows the players to be upfront about the gender-based barriers they’ve faced in their different countries, with one player describing how she’d dressed as a boy in order to play as a child, another revealing that her club president signed her to play in Brazil for $0.00, and others opening up about gender-based violence and abuse.

As grim as that is, the film also shows what a difference visibility makes, as a determined crowd of boys pushes back against the police to be allowed to watch the team play a handful of games in Jordan. And the players push back against physical limitations to prove that women can play great soccer at any altitude, on any field.  

Unravelling Athena 

Unravelling Athena is on Showmax

Director Francis Amat asks 20 Women’s Tennis Association singles and doubles champions – including Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Evonne Goolagong, Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, Monica Seles, Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sania Mirza, Dinara Safina, and more – the same set of questions about their career highs and lows, their struggles and determination to overcome slumps … and even physical attacks.

Monica Seles talks about what it took to come back to the game after a man who was sexually obsessed with Steffi Graf broke onto the court at Hamburg’s Citizen Cup in 1993 and stabbed her in front of the crowd. They also discuss life after tennis, as Evonne Goolagong Cawley chats about using the public’s positive attitude towards her to champion the rights of Australia’s indigenous people. Throughout, Unravelling Athena is a celebration of the guts and grit behind the glory, and about unashamedly striving to be the best.  

Unstoppable: The Rebecca Nagel Story 

Unstoppable- The Rebecca Nagel Story is on Showmax

In 2014 Rebecca Nagel lost the use of her legs in a car accident. She would never walk again, but she wasn’t sitting still. On 18 June 2022, Rebecca became the first ever woman to complete a half marathon trail event. This South African documentary joins her on the trail to show the physical and mental determination it took her to complete the course.

Rebecca refused to have an assistant with her for the race, and Unstoppable shows her come up with solutions on the fly when things don’t go according to plan. In interview segments, she also reveals what she had to do to even get to the starting line, what keeps her moving forward, and what the sport has given back to her. 

Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season 

Lindsey Vonn is on Showmax

With raw power, this enthralling documentary follows 34-year-old downhill skiing champion Lindsey Vonn as she aims to crown her career by breaking the record set by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark for most World Cup wins. With 82 wins under her belt and a record of just 86 to chase, it seems to be within her grasp. But two weeks before the start of the new season in 2019, Lindsey suffers a frustrating knee injury. Instead of riding along for her victory lap, the documentary shows her crying in hospital from sheer frustration.

Then we get to sweat alongside Lindsey as we follow her insanely intense path to recovery and her determination to get in that last, glorious season. Along with the present day story, the documentary focuses on the lifelong pressure Lindsay stood up to, even the sport’s demands destroyed her parents’ marriage and her relationship with her father, who was also her manager until the two fell out over her marriage at the age of 22. Lindsey offers a rare glimpse into what it’s like to sacrifice childhood to the demands of sports training and celebrity, which often left her feeling more like a commodity than a person.  

At the Heart of Gold 

At the Heart of Gold is on Showmax

From the 1990s to the 2010s, more than 368 women and young girls training to be gymnasts in the United States were sexually abused by gym owners, coaches and staff. At the heart of the abuse scandal was USA Gymnastics National Team (USAG) doctor Larry Nassar, who’d been sexually abusing gymnasts for more than 14 years. When Nasser finally pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and first degree sexual assault, his accusers included Olympians like McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. 

This documentary reveals how the USAG repeatedly dismissed warnings about abusive coaches, refused to report abuse to the police, and actively supported coaches who’d been convicted of sexually abusing gymnasts. It spotlights the appalling pressure placed on children to push through serious injury to perform, and the cult-like culture that worked to crush any attempt from girls to complain about how they were treated, from the moment they entered the sport. Along with exposing the abusers and the system, though, At the Heart of Gold celebrates the women and girls who risked their careers and reputations to save a new generation.  


Fifteen Love is on Showmax

This six-episode series offers a fictional take on what happens when an athlete claims that her coach groomed and sexually abused her in her teens. To the public, injury seemed to be the culprit when up-and-coming tennis star Justine Pearce’s (Ella Lily Hyland) fell off the circuit. Years later when she tries to expose her former tennis coach Glenn Lapthorne (Aidan Turner), she finds herself facing a wall of questions and accusations. But slowly, other players who Glenn has taken advantage of when they were around 14 or 15 years old start seeing their “daring, secret romances” in a far more damning light, while others find the courage to speak out against the man whose predatory advances and threats ruined their love of the game.

Fifteen-Love shows how Glenn is able to cover his tracks, dodge the spotlight, and take advantage of widespread perceptions of 15-year-old girls being silly, emotional, dramatic and desperate for attention. The series is a drama, but writer Hania Elkington had extensive real-life cases to draw on, after players like Isabelle Demongeot, Fiona Ferro, and Pam Shriver went public to condemn their own coaches. 

And look out for… 

The Fastest Woman on Earth 

The Fastest Woman on Earth is on Showmax

From Wednesday, 23 August you’ll be able to see this HBO special documentary on Jessi Combs, the racing driver, metal fabricator and Mythbusters Host on a mission to break the women’s land speed record – set at 825 km/h by Kitty O’Neil in 1976 – and then to top her own record. The documentary crew followed Jessi for seven years, even recording her fascinating one-on-one chat with Kitty about her career and the barriers she faced in the sport and in her life.

We’re shown how many commitments Jessi was juggling, and how much of normal life she had to sacrifice, as one of very few women in the motorsports industry. Jesse was deeply involved with the design and development of her vehicles but she constantly had to drum up support and financial resources in her quest to be the fastest. This documentary lets Jessi speak for herself, as she reveals what drives her to push the limits, and what it feels like to inspire more women to break the rules, and the records.  

Read more about all the sports entertainment  you can enjoy on Showmax and Showmax Pro, watch live sport on Showmax Pro, and enjoy sport movies and documentaries on Showmax now. 

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