Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Olympics prove women deserve sporting chance

Many commentators were surprised that the athlete whose image was used by the London Olympics to promote its Games was Jessica Ennis.

This long before her heroics of the weekend when she kicked off what has now become known as Super Saturday by literally running away with the gold medal for the heptathlon - a particularly gruelling test of talent over two days.

Even now, with four days to go, these Olympics will be remembered for the historic mutli-gold medal achievements of Bolt, Hoy, Phelps, Wiggins and Ainsley. And rightly so.

But women's sports should be given the the place they deserve in our national culture. Of the 38 medals gained by Team GB at the time of writing, no fewer than 15 have been won by a total of 23 women.

That's cycling, rowing, equestrianism, track and field, swimming, judo - in other words, all the jock-strapping, wet-towel-flicking, nose-blowing, phlegm-spitting, bicep-busting, traditional manly pursuits.

Yet away from the Olympics only 5% of media coverage is dedicated to female sports and that's mostly tennis. Last year, women's sport received about half a percent of all UK sports sponsorship, with 61% going to men and the remainder to teams. Yip, that's a whole half a percent.

Before we get carried away with the current hype attaching to GB's hugely successful women athletes, let's remember that comedian Frankie Boyle didn't compare Sir Chris Hoy's face to a bicycle bell or say that Bradley Wiggins's sideburns made him look like a werewolf ... But he conducted a campaign vilifying swimmer Rebecca Aldington, most recently comparing her face to a dolphin's.

Meanwhile, the BBC studios are packed to the walls with the Silver Surfers of Broadcasting Houses the length and breadth of the isle. Even grumpy Barry Davies was exhumed from airwave limbo to cover women's hockey.

Women couldn't be trusted to commentate responsibly even on women's sport without some bluff Uncle snorting gibberish. Women's gymnastics was a case in point; the women's cycling road race another, where no women at all were commentating.

Which would be all very well - non sexist, dontcha know. Except with the footie, the rowing, the cycling, etc etc etc, where men were involved, it was Boys' Only.

Things haven't worked out quite as planned. The 'gels' have more than brought home the bacon. Many males I know who thought they'd spend hours just ogling beach volleyball actually stayed enthralled at the sheer sporty-ness of it. Ditto women's football, basketball, hockey, shooting, judo ... It's all just as competitive and the old prejudices about it being too slow, or too girly, or not brutal enough just don't apply any more. Check out the savage beatings dished out in women's boxing. Brilliant!

But in the studio, horse-racing's Claire Balding, whose performance has been pure class, was consigned to the swimming arena with a male expert, Gabby Logan mopped up the late night review-of-the-day slot, Sue Barker got a run out in the afternoons. Sundry ladies were deported to windy outposts on the coast. The comfy studio sofas were occupied by the pointless Linekers and the creepy Inverdales on the one hand, and a line of anonymous cheeky chappies on the other.

Meanwhile, Barker, Balding, Logan - to name but three - have decades of multi-sport background behind them, as well as personal knowledge of the athletes involved. They would do, since no self-respecting hairy male would dirty his shoes with women's sport on any other occasion and the advocacy is left to the Laydeez. This week needs to see the end of the old order in media coverage of sport. The audience for sport includes women.

Why wouldn't broadcasters alter their habits to exploit the massive untapped appetite among women for sport to which they can relate directly, not as a social sub-class, but as a real source for decent role models, inspirational achievement, simple excellence and astonishment? As the Olympics have shown spectacularly, you can't contain the capacities of women with endless episodes of Cake Off Bake Off and Woman's Hour.

What has surprised everyone is not that GB is winning so much - well, not only that - but that women's versions of sporting tradition are better honoured in other countries than by British broadcasters who claim to represent all the public but represent less than half of them. The male bit. It's time to cut that off.

So to speak.

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