London — ‘This is a big, big step for women. Hopefully other sports can see exactly what we can see in squash, and do the same.’
Nour El Sherbini was six-years-old when she first followed her brother onto a squash court in Alexandria, Egypt, and she was competing in tournaments at the age of eight.
Although neither of her parents play the sport, and despite suffering repeated injuries, the athlete is now one of the world’s top squash players and the youngest to gain four world titles.
But last week she also notched up another record – becoming the first female player to earn more prize money than her male equivalent when she won the CIB PSA Women’s World Championship in Egypt.
El Sherbini, 24, was awarded $60,800 from a pot of $430,000. The men’s champion will earn $45,600 out of a purse of $335,000 at their equivalent tournament in Qatar later this month.
She said she was thrilled her country was championing women’s success in the sport.
“We have to be proud that we are doing this,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview. “This is a big, big step for women.”
“Hopefully other sports can see exactly what we can see in squash, and do the same.”
The increase in prize money came after sponsor CIB pledged an additional $100,000 to the tournament pot.
Alex Gough, CEO of the Professional Squash Association (PSA), said prize money for the women’s championship was at its highest level after increasing 65% since 2015.
But the equity between winnings for men and women’s squash players contrasts to many other world sports in which women receive a fraction of that earned by their male counterparts.
In March the U.S. women’s soccer team sued governing body U.S. Soccer alleging gender discrimination in earnings.
Last year Australian basketball player Liz Cambage tweeted that National Basketball Association referees made more than female players in the Women’s National Basketball Association.
A 2017 BBC study found about 83% of sports rewarded men and women equal prize money – but that did not take into account other disparities such as salaries and sponsorship.
For sponsors and the media it can come down to return on investment, and squash’s popularity in Egypt may be helping drive the change, El Sherbini said.
“Everyone is following squash and knows the players,” she said. “We grew up watching a lot of good Egyptian players, so when we were young we wanted to be like them.
“Once I grabbed the racquet … I didn’t leave it.”
Egypt has produced world-class squash players since the 1930s. President Hosni Mubarak increased government funding for the sport and staged tournaments in front of the Pyramids.
Currently four of the top five female squash players in the world are Egyptian.
Coaches and sponsors “now believe in women,” El Sherbini said. “They can play sports. They can achieve something big.”
As for the athlete’s brother?
“He’s not playing anymore,” El Sherbini laughed.
– Reporting by Rosa Furneaux, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith