Netball and the Olympics: What's holding the sport back?

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England stun Australia to win netball gold with last-gasp goal

Netball is "owned by women", says England netball head coach Tracey Neville. But is this a problem?

England's dramatic and historic Commonwealth Games netball gold last month was barely hours old before questions over why the sport isn't in the Olympics began.

Surely with last-gasp victories, breathless action and a focus on female participation, it seems logical for netball to be showcased on the world's biggest stage?

But England netball chief Joanna Adams is saying that it's "£20m and 20 years away" from the Olympic Games.

So what's holding the sport back?

Lack of gender balance?

"All our insight says the second men start to play, women will stop," Adams told BBC Sport.

"We are also fighting for the money to keep our national team on court, so why would we divert money to support a men's pathway? It makes absolutely no sense."

Neville agrees with this "selfish" attitude. "We're living on a shoestring and that funding has got us to a gold medal," she told BBC Sport.

"To share that funding now with the male end of the sport, I can selfishly say I wouldn't want to do that."

Likewise, while the International Netball Federation (INF) welcomes the involvement of men, the primary focus at international level remains 'female only' netball.

So is netball's gender balance a problem?

Last month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) published the report of their 'Gender Equality Review Project', setting out 25 recommendations.

One of these states team sports and events should ensure an equal number of teams and, "where appropriate", the same number of athletes for both genders.

But Clare Briegal, chief executive of the INF, says the IOC do not see their gender balance as a barrier.

"We've had many conversations and it's something they monitor with us," she told BBC Sport. "But they recognise the world isn't an equal place yet and there is a place for women-only programmes."

Briegal says the INF do encourage men and boys to play netball in "nations where women have a much more equal place in society", but that is not always the case.

"In many of the countries where we operate, we argue that we provide a safe space for women to play sport and the IOC recognises that," she added.

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Not enough men playing the game?

"Until the same amount of women and girls play sport and have the same opportunities as men and boys, they will continue to be our focus," says Adams. "We sit in a really unique position and we just don't want to water down that offer."

In England, netball is offered as a mixed game up until the age of 11, but do men even want to play the sport after that age?

There is currently no England men's seven-a-side team, but the male version of the game is on the rise - albeit slowly.

Lewis Keeling played for England's mixed team at the Nets World Cup in 2016 - a faster version of the game played inside netted courts.

He has also recently started a men's seven-a-side netball club - London-based Knights netball - which he believes is the first in the capital.

"The focus is to support the women's game," Keeling told BBC Sport. "If we can be valuable and get women into the Olympics, that will be helpful to everybody."

But Keeling says there is a barrier to men playing netball - it's just seen as a "girls' sport"."There is lots of stigma attached and it will only go away if women tell men it's OK to play netball," he said.

"Australia and New Zealand are much more advanced than we are. You see mixed netball all over the place and the mentality is better. Both sexes have the freedom to play."

Neville has played against men in Australia and says there are not only fewer barriers for boys to play netball, but they "live and breathe netball".

"I don't remember either of my brothers [former England footballers Gary and Phil Neville] playing netball at school and they haven't since," she said.

"Access to men's netball in England still isn't as we'd like. There was a persona of it being a girls' sport, but I think that's moved on."

But England do use male netballers in training. Neville brought in Geva Mentor's brother, a 6'11" former basketball player, in preparation for the semi-final against Jamaica.

"Men bring different characteristics to the game," added Neville. "Their skill level isn't as good but their height is the main thing. They have the aerial game, bigger ranges and they're more physical."

No global reach & other priorities?

Caitlin Bassett and Geva Mentor
Australia, New Zealand and England are the top three ranked nations in the world

Netball's gender balance may look like the biggest stumbling block, but Briegal says there are "bigger things to worry about".

The sport is eligible for inclusion in the Olympics, having gained official status in 1995, but an application to feature at Tokyo 2020 was unsuccessful, mainly due to the sport's lack of presence in Japan.

Currently, 120 countries play the sport but the absence of global powerhouses China and Russia is a huge drawback.

The United States is the largest country in the INF's 40-strong world rankings - sitting 28th - but the top 12 countries are Commonwealth nations.

Briegal says they are in constant dialogue with the IOC but that the Olympics is not "the number one project" of the INF.

"It might be an outcome but it isn't the only outcome," she said.

"If we put all our resources into getting into the Olympics, we would have to turn the tap off to some of the development work we do and that's nonsense."

Likewise, Adams says "the Olympics isn't the ultimate goal for England netball".

Where does netball go from here?

Paris will host the 2024 summer Olympics with Los Angeles hosting four years later

For netball there is one other way to gain inclusion in a Games - the IOC gives the hosts the chance to bring in one or more sports on a temporary basis.

The IOC has already approved five new additions in Tokyo - baseball/softball, sport climbing, surfing, karate and skateboarding - and the following two Olympics do not offer much hope either.

Paris will host in 2024 and Los Angeles four years later - and neither France nor the United States are established netball nations.

"We had a general chat with Paris 2024 when they applied to be a host city," said Briegal. "And we've also had conversations with LA, but it's not part of an application yet. It's a very long game."

So netball could be left hoping the 2032 Olympics go to a Commonwealth country with a rich netball history.

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