Aurora Games: Why was the women-only event created – and does it have a future?

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The Aurora Games were the first of their kind. Competitors included multiple Olympic champions, viral superstars and Grand Slam winners – and every single one was female.

Held last week in the city of Albany in upstate New York, and featuring six sports over six days, the Games were more a festival celebrating women’s sport than a competitive event.

But what are the Aurora Games – and do they have a future?

Why were they created?

Some would argue a women-only event is a backwards step – even ghettoising – at a time when global sports are actively promoting equality.

The Aurora Games took place as World Rugby announced that World Cups will be gender-neutral, with the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup rebranded as the Rugby World Cup.

But Aurora Games founder Jerry Solomon believes women deserve “their own platform”.

“Women’s sport gets 4% of global coverage in the press,” said Solomon, a former sports agent who represented many top athletes, including his wife – two-time Olympic figure skating medallist Nancy Kerrigan.

“That’s got to grow. That almost seems impossible to me.”

The tipping point for Solomon was what he felt was a lack of media attention given to Kayla Harrison – one of his clients – when she retained her Olympic judo title in Rio in 2016.

“Nobody really knew who Kayla was, and at the same time there were a lot of men who were doing a lot less who were getting a lot more exposure,” he told BBC Sport.

“Because I have represented athletes on the men’s and women’s side, I’ve seen it takes the same fortitude and athletic drive to be at the top of your sport.

“So I thought it was time for women to have their own platform so that there’s no more comparison. Not to say: ‘Could the woman beat the man?’ It doesn’t matter whether the woman can beat the man.”

Kerrigan, of course, received plenty of coverage while she was competing in the early 1990s – due in no small part to her rivalry with Tonya Harding.

And the 49-year-old American knows how much visibility matters in women’s sport.

“Basketball, baseball, football… you see men playing all the time – which is great and inspiring – but young girls want to see females to look up to too,” she said.

“It’s nothing against men, but they have a lot of platforms already so women just need an opportunity.”

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Who competed – and who were the captains?

The Games featured two teams – Team Americas (athletes from North and South America) and Team World (everywhere else). Both were captained by sporting icons.

Team World were led by trailblazing gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The Romanian made history at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, scoring the first ever perfect 10 in artistic gymnastics at the age of 14.

The 57-year-old won nine Olympic medals – five of which were gold – and now hopes she can have a positive impact through her involvement in the Aurora Games.

“The legacy is that women have deserved their own platform for a long time,” she said. “This generation will know they have a place for them only.”

Team Americas were captained by three-time Olympic champion and heptathlon world record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Though both wanted their team to win, they were united in their goal of promoting women’s sport.

“It’s not that it’s important, it’s necessary,” said Joyner-Kersee, who adds it was an “honour” to be involved.

“When Jerry reached out to me last year to ask if I would be captain, I just wanted to support what he was doing because it was all about women empowering women and I’m glad I came on board.”

Which sports were included?

The event was a mix of summer and winter disciplines.

It began with tennis, then each night was devoted to one of the remaining six sports – gymnastics, basketball, ice hockey, table tennis, figure skating and beach volleyball.

That variety led tennis player Victoria Azarenka to describe the Games as “something I have never experienced in my life”.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have sports together that you wouldn’t really see in one place,” she said.

“Competitiveness between us as athletes never goes away but here it’s about bringing the unity of sports and women, and highlighting that togetherness in one event. It’s unique.

“I hope in 10 years it’s just a normal weekend.”

Who were the big names?

United States gymnastics superstar Katelyn Ohashi went viral in January, her perfect score in the floor exercise for UCLA Gymnastics at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim amassing over 100 million views online.

The basketball featured Olympic medallists, national champions and former WNBA players, including Team Americas player-coach Lindsay Whalen, Barbara Turner and Laia Palau, who competed in three Olympic Games for Spain.

In tennis, Belarusia’s former world number one Azarenka lined up alongside Garbine Muguruza for Team World, who won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017. Team Americas boasted Bianca Andreescu, fresh from winning the Rogers Cup.

Team Americas’ figure skating ranks included Mirai Nagasu, the first US woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics, and 13-year-old Alysa Liu, the youngest ever US women’s figure skating champion.

Which team won?

Team Americas triumphed emphatically, winning 6-1. Joyner-Kersee’s charges emerged victorious in tennis, gymnastics, ice hockey, table tennis, figure skating and beach volleyball, with Team World’s lone win coming in basketball.

The highlight of the games was Ohashi bringing the house down with her final performance in the gymnastics, scoring a perfect 10 in the floor exercise to help Team Americas win 158.5-158.3.

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Does it have a future?

Despite the event attracting big names across several sports, crowds were modest.

The Times Union Center, which hosted the Games, has a capacity of 17,500 but the opening ceremony and tennis evening only attracted a crowd of 3,900.

The gymnastics – including Ohashi’s flawless floor routine – had the week’s largest audience of 4,210.

But Solomon says the event will be held in 2021 and 2023 – and he aims to take it around the world.

“When I was a kid I went to the very first Super Bowl,” he said.

“If people had said then that there was going to be 52 of them… I don’t think anyone in that stadium thought there was a chance that was going to happen.

“You have to have perseverance and belief in what you’re doing. I’m hoping we will come out of this with momentum to go forward to 2021 and keep growing.”

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