Federal Sports Minister Kate Lundy has hit out at the discrimination of Australia's female Olympic basketball team which flew to London in economy class while Basketball Australia foot the bill for the men's national team to travel in business.
After Fairfax Media exposed the clear gender-based inequity yesterday, revealing that the Opals - captained by international superstar Lauren Jackson - flew premium economy to London while the Boomers travel as a rule at the front of the plane, Senator Lundy and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick called for the injustice to be rectified.
Further investigation reveal the Opals are not alone in being treated as second-class sporting citizens by the administrations that govern them. National women's soccer and cricket teams are flown economy as a matter of course, while the male teams travel in business. This is despite the fact that the Australian women's soccer team has a higher world ranking than the men's team.
Other Olympic units such as the men and women's hockey teams, and the track cycling team, travelled in the same airline class to London. Swimming Australia has policy to say that all athletes fly economy, although individuals have the freedom to upgrade if they can.
In London yesterday morning Australian chef de mission Nick Green refused to criticise Basketball Australia - which has recently installed former New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally as its chair - saying only that the AOC provided return economy airfares for all Olympic team members with Qantas, an official national Olympic team sponsor.
"We're comfortable for the sports to look after their athletes ... we give them the travel subsidy to travel with Qantas, our partner, and the sports themselves determine how they use that," Green said.
"I'm not sure of the arrangement that Basketball Australia have had with their men's and women's basketball teams. I read it for the first time this morning."
The Canberra Times has been told that members of the Australian men's basketball team have a written agreement from Basketball Australia that they will be flown business class for any flight over three hours. The women have no such arrangement.
A Basketball Australia spokeswoman said the women's and men's teams have separate budgets that the respective leadership teams were consulted about. However it's understood that frustrated current members of the women's Opals team have been lobbying for better treatment for some time.
Minister Lundy took aim at an injustice that former captain of the Opals, Robyn Maher, described as well-entrenched.
Senator Lundy said: "Travel arrangements are a matter for the AOC and the relevant national sporting organisation, however my view is that team travel should be equitable for our male and female athletes.”
"Our Australian basketball teams, the Opals and the Boomers, both play the same game, they’re both tall and they are both equally committed to representing Australia at the Games.
"They shouldn’t have to travel a different class because they’re both world class.”
While the Opals have won silver medals at the last three Olympic Games, won bronze in 1996 and are strong contenders to breakthrough for gold in London, the Boomers have never won an Olympics medal.
Three-time Olympian Maher, the wife of former Opals coach Tom Maher, said Australian female basketballers had repeatedly asked Basketball Australia to justify the inequity but had received no satisfactory answers.
"I haven’t played for over 10 years with the Australian team, but certainly I voiced my opinion when I was there about it, but to no avail – nothing’s changed," Robyn Maher said.
"Over the years it’s been a multitude of [reasons given] – the men get better funding, so they’ve been able to do it, the men are bigger so they need more space.
"I know back in the 80s and 90s, when we were sponsored by Qantas, Qantas used to give us any spare upgrades they could and the women would get upgrades. But that was maybe 1 or 2 players and that was it, never has the whole team travelled in business – [the men have] always travelled in business.
"It’s been a bit of a sore spot, especially since the women are much more successful.
"I’m yet to find a nice answer for it other than they’re male and we’re female. You’d hate that that’s the reason, but I’m sure it is."
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Broderick weighed saying: "I’ve had people tweeting me back ‘it’s about size’ - well no, it’s not, because Lauren Jackson is over 195, I know Liz Cambage is over 200cm, so these are Australia’s finest athletes, both male and female, but treated very differently.
"I was saddened to see it to be honest...there’s a lot of positive things, we have moved a long way in terms of the equality of men and women… [but] when something like this happens, it seems to put everything back."