For those who are passionate about elevating underserved girls and women around the globe through sports, it helps to have friends in high places. And at a State Department event on Monday morning, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the top-ranking official in President Barack Obama's cabinet and a woman of enormous influence, showed she is such a friend.
In a nine-minute speech the official purpose of which was to launch the Women's World Cup Initiative, a program designed to empower women and girls through sports, Secretary of State Clinton reminded her audience that although athletic competition for competition's sake is itself a positive force, sports can also "liberate and open up opportunities for so many."
Speaking in the ornate Benjamin Franklin Room at the Department of State, Clinton nodded at a portrait of the room's namesake -- "a great believer in breaking down barriers and boundaries" -- and said "Ben" would have approved of the assembled set of athletes, sports activists and pioneers.
Among the attendees were Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama; four members of the U.S. women's national soccer team, fresh off a 1-0 victory over Mexico in their final World Cup tuneup Sunday; and 18 teenage female soccer players and their coaches representing six countries who are taking a 10-day tour of the northeastern United States.
Clinton is a commanding speaker, but in her remarks to this diverse group of talented soccer players, she came across as warm and self-deprecating. While discussing the impact that Title IX has had on the generations of American girls who have come of age since its 1972 enactment, she joked that even if it had come sooner, the revolutionary legislation would not have improved her own athletic destiny.
"I played sports of all kinds, not very well, so I have no illusions about what Title IX would have meant to me," Clinton said to sympathetic laughter before wrapping up her remarks, apologizing and dashing off to her 10 a.m. meeting with the president. (If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that excuse. ...)
The Women's World Cup Initiative promotes the advancement of women through sports envoys and exchange programs like the one celebrated Monday. It is co-sponsored by the Office of Global Women's Issues and the SportsUnited Office, both subdivisions of the State Department.
"This visit is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said a poised 16-year-old Robyn Moodaly, the youngest player on South Africa's national team, as she introduced Clinton. "We are here in the U.S. to learn about American sports and culture and to teach each other about our lives, our hopes and the challenges we face. And yes, how to work together to overcome those challenges."
Moodaly and the rest of the South African delegation are joined on their tour by players from Bolivia, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories. The athletes were nominated to participate in the exchange by the U.S. embassies in those areas.
Since their May 31 arrival in the States, the young women have met with the U.S. national team and played with local soccer teams in New York and Washington.
Honey Thaljieh, a coach with the Palestinian delegation, said what she has witnessed on her visit presents a dramatic contrast to her experience as a sportswoman at home.
"There are a lot of different challenges of being accepted as a woman playing soccer in Palestine," Thaljieh said during a panel discussion later Monday. "Not only because it's an Arab country and also a Muslim-controlled country. It's also a man issue -- men just not believing in the quality of the woman. We don't have qualified coaches; we don't have the infrastructure.
"Everything we do in Palestine is a challenge. Traveling is a challenge. Being sick and going to the hospital is a challenge. Playing soccer is a challenge. We don't have fields, so we play on asphalt."
It was a compelling narrative, one that served as a reminder that in much of the world, sports are not a diversion, entertainment or an escape but instead a barometer of the quality of life for women. And with a secretary of state who has made the empowerment of women and girls across the globe a central tenet of her agenda since she was first lady, sports have the potential to be a tool to evoke positive social change.
"When I go to other countries around the world and we talk about what kind of exchanges that people are looking for, very often a leader will say, 'How about a sports exchange?'" Clinton said Monday. "We want to do more and more of that.
"We'll encourage even more people to get behind women and girls in sports," Clinton said. "To give young women a chance to compete on the playing field, to discharge that incredible energy that they want to put into being the best they can be, and that we see more and more women around the world being given the opportunities to live up to their own God-given potential."