It is a little over two decades since Karsten Braasch vanquished the Williams sisters (Serena to one and Venus to two in that order) in a match whose uniqueness made it no different from a statistical rounding error. Braasch, then ranked number 203 by the ATP, proved an implacable adversary, taking a commanding victory in such a grotesquely dismissive manner that pretty much mirrored his pre-match sound bytes.
Low on intellect, Braasch’s sound bytes had been relentless in their dismissal of parity between men and women on the court. Beating Serena and Venus in successive sets squeezed into a single match was supposed to elicit derision and rarely in ways that stripped the male sex’s cloak of near-invincibility.
Over the years conquests such as Yannick Noah’s achieved clad in a dress against Justine Henin and her insanely deft one-handed backhand have appeared to reflect the limits to which women operate. While women took what little romance there was out of Li Na beating Novak Djokovic in 2013, there always was a piercingly apt realisation that a 30-0 head start handed to the former didn’t give much weight to parity. This wasn’t Billie Jean King finally lording it over a loud and brash Bobby Riggs.
Yet despite the retreating horizon of their success in that regard, female athletes haven’t lost all their sparkle. They still maintain a tiny glint of fight. Scientific intricacies might make the odds of parity in performance long, but this needn’t trigger a gender pay gap. The violent temperament of women activists instantly asserts itself at the slightest difference of opinion on this dicey subject matter.
Uganda has recently found itself smack in the middle of a gender pay gap debate. This followed a glaring discrepancy between pay of the men’s national football and women’s national netball teams. While the men were wished every good fortune with a Shs 3.7bn kitty from President Museveni to share, the women inherited a terrible hand if a collective Shs 12m purse from the First Lady is anything to go by.
To some it is not immediately obvious why such a disparity exits. To others though it calls attention to the existence of gender stereotypes.
This school of thought is much blunter in its portrayal of the masculine culture that surrounds Ugandan sport. To such observers it is startlingly awful in every conceivable way that a team that placed seventh in the world gets much less than another that just about made the top 16 in Africa. In truth, though, a perfect storm could well be the reason why the She Cranes are drowning in a flood of problems. Their name is just a faint echo not just because women sport is held in a thunderously dark embrace. While the mind boggles at the audacious enormity of Ugandan netball’s achievement, the sport continues to suffer because of lumbering remnants of a twentieth-century way of doing things. It inherited a terrible hand and went on to play it badly.
The mistake is in imagining that the current leadership of Susan Anek will add a degree of flex to the sport. Uganda Netball Federation can learn a thing or two from Fufa about how to build a brand. The work being done by Moses Magogo on this front is both prodigious and intensely imaginative. Short of such a twenty first-century approach, netball will remain inherently vulnerable to getting the short end of the stick. Which would be sad, mad and bad!