In celebration of International Women’s Day, we speak to Australian Olympian and IOC Young Leader Jemima Montag, who is aiming to help break down the barriers stopping young women from participating in sport through her Play On project.

Jemima Montag is not someone who is content just to idle time away. Aged barely 24, she is already a Bachelor of Science, a medical student, the Australian national record-holder in the 20km race walk, an Olympian and a role model to young girls through her regular talks in schools. Now, as part of the IOC Young Leaders programme, Jemima is determined to support young women to keep participating in sport through her Play On project.

From walking away to walking into the record books

Like many children, Montag took part in a wide variety of sports when she was growing up, including swimming, ballet and athletics. Finding that she didn’t excel over shorter distances, or in many of the team sports that require explosiveness, she realised she had “more slow twitch fibres than fast”. As a result, she turned her attention to disciplines that require endurance, and soon discovered a natural affinity with race walking. With inspiration from Australia’s rich history in the discipline, and the achievements of athletes such as Olympic bronze medallist Jane Saville and world indoor champion Kerry Saxby-Junna, it appeared exciting and accessible to Montag.

The decision to focus on race walking paid off in extraordinary fashion in the longer term, with Montag breaking the Australian national record in the 20km race walk in February 2022 – beating the existing time by 17 seconds in her first race since finishing sixth on the biggest stage of all: the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

But her journey to becoming a record-breaking Olympian was not completely smooth as, at the age of 17, she became disillusioned with the sport and decided to take an indefinite break from competing.

“Around that challenging time, I had really low self-belief and certainly didn’t picture myself becoming an Olympian. I just didn’t think I had what it takes,” she explains. “My family was on holiday in Tokyo and my younger sister said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you went to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020?’  I just thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. There’s no way I have what it takes.’ But my mum was an athlete herself in the 400 metre hurdles and netball, so I think that she was also able to see something in me that I couldn’t, and she was able to help me through that hard time. Without putting too much pressure on, she let me know that the whole family would be there for me; and now we’re five years down the road and a lot has changed.”

Empowering communities

Montag’s time away from the sport was not wasted, either. Crucially, she believes that this period was fundamental in informing her later work with the IOC Young Leaders Programme and its Founding Partner, Panasonic, and in helping to clearly define how she wanted to help girls in her community through her own personal project. This clarity enabled her to join the 2021-2024 edition of the IOC Young Leaders Programme, which sees 25 inspirational young people per generation take part in an array of seminars, talks and activities on many topics, including human-centred design and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

“It’s a really rare opportunity to learn from new experts every month and develop great skills in the sport and social business space that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to,” Montag explains. “When you’re having conversations with people from different walks of life every month, it makes you broaden your understanding of what it is to be human. The most outstanding expert session for me personally has been on human-centred design, which focuses on empowering people to communicate what they actually want to put in place to help them overcome their specific local issue and to discover solutions for themselves.”

Play On

These workshops, and the focus on human-centred design, inspired Montag to come up with her own idea, and to implement it through the IOC Young Leaders Programme. The Play On project aims to encourage young women to continue to enjoy physical activity, sport and recreation at a time when a disproportionate number of girls tend to give them up. To properly inform her project and to ensure it was focused on the relevant areas, Montag embarked on a year’s worth of research and came across a host of barriers to young women in sport that put them off participating. These included sports uniforms that objectify young women’s bodies and affect their confidence; socio-cultural expectations of boys versus girls (especially at school); traditional ideas of masculine and feminine sports conflicting with image; and personal safety travelling to sports events in the early morning or late evening.

“Once I had a grip on the barriers and why girls are dropping out of sport at twice the rate that young men are, I had to think about the solution,” she reveals. “So I looked into my local government’s inquiry into women and girls in sport and recreation, and took one of its suggestions on board – tackle the built environment and create the conditions for young women to enjoy physical activity.”

Currently in the testing phase, the Play On pilot programme will launch just after International Women’s Day this March, and will initially run at a local football club and a local school before expanding further afield. The four-week e-resource gives young women the opportunity to hear from diverse female experts on four key modules: female athlete health, mental health, nutrition and inclusive spaces. Each theme is made up of three videos from speakers, including Olympians, Paralympians, sports doctors and dieticians, and PhD candidates, who thoroughly explain their area of expertise to give the participants a clear understanding of how to deal with the different issues women face in sport today..

See it to believe it

These women in highly visible positions represent another of the key tools that Montag believes in: role models. For her personally, these include Australian canoeist Jessica Fox for her joy in competing, marathon runner Jess Stenson, and long-distance runners Eloise Wellings and Sara Hall; while closer to home she has been inspired by her grandmother’s strength in the face of adversity as a holocaust survivor, and her mother for her gentle encouragement when she needed it most. She credits these women, among many others, for helping to show her that she is capable of achieving her ambitions, and believes that simply seeing someone like you doing what you want can make any challenge seem much more surmountable.

“I think we’ve got to be able to see it to believe it,” explains Montag. “If we can have women role models that we can speak to and find out how they navigated certain forks in the road, that makes it even better for the young girls coming through after. Seeking out role models and creating a support network were what really helped me. I truly believe in the motto ‘If she believes it, she can be it,’ but in general we have had to think the opposite. Things would be a lot better if we could see ourselves reflected in the media and in sports coverage and therefore have greater self-belief.”

Having achieved so much in her life already, Montag herself is setting the perfect example for girls to follow in her fast-moving footsteps.​

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