Have you ever got so worked up about something that it’s a real struggle to express yourself coherently on the subject? So angry that whenever anyone brings it up all you want to do is scream YOU’RE WRONG, YOU’RE SO SO WRONG! and wave your arms about at them in fury? Just me?
Anyway, this is how I often feel about the portrayal of women’s sport in the media. If you want to read a more eloquent and far funnier take on this issue see here but I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and say my piece. Get ready for some shouty capitalisation.
I’m a rower. That means I get up at stupid o’clock 4 mornings a week and spend half my time in the gym or a soul destroying rowing machine and the other half in the freezing cold on the river. But I love it. It’s grim, yes, but it gives you a feeling of accomplishment and worthwhile-ness that nothing else can. Rowing is a very ‘all or nothing’ sport. I dedicate what sometimes seems like my whole life to it. You have NO IDEA how much it pisses me off when someone asks me “why I bother, since the boys will always be better. I mean, they could beat you in a race.” When someone compares girls rowing to “a giant game of pooh sticks”, or tells you your eight looked like “driftwood”, or when the boys get a trophy for winning the Schools Head but the girls don’t, or when you’re told your National Schools’ Regatta medal is worthless, because it was in a girls event. Take one look at the juniors section of the website “talk rowing”, and its just appalling to see the amount of casual sexism. It might be said as a joke, but I’m not laughing anymore. Obviously these things are all stupid. And plenty of people will tell you to rise above it and not let it get to you. To prove the boys wrong and go out and win more, and work harder. But why should I have to work harder to earn the same respect?
I started to realise this wasn’t just my problem about a year ago. I’m slightly obsessed with sport and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year is something I (tragically) really look forward to. In 2011 there were NO women nominated. The BBC helpfully pointed out that hardly any of the magazines or newspapers on the shortlisting panel had picked women. Nuts and Zoo were on the panel. Nuts and Zoo! Nuts and Zoo! And the BBC said that was fine! (because, actually, we were all mistaken in thinking that they were seedy mens’ magazines, because, really, they were very serious sporting journals) Another defence of what was, in my opinion, horrible sexism, was that nobody knew who any of the sportswomen were. And why is that? Because the very newspapers who didn’t nominate them NEVER PUBLISH ANYTHING ABOUT THEM!
The rage reached a new peak this summer. I thought we’d moved on. The Olympics was GLORIOUS and everyone seemed to be excited to watch any member of team GB, regardless of gender. The boys I row with grew up (and in a beautiful piece of poetic justice) realised we hadn’t just been drifting up and down the river after all when they ended up with our coach for a season. But then my illusion was shattered. In the Sunday Telegraph sports supplement, eight days after the London Olympics there were 2 paragraphs on women’s sport. The supplement is about 20 pages long. A GRAND TOTAL of 137 words (oh yes, I counted) were spent informing me about HALF OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION who also happen to participate in sport. Now the Telegraph is not my favourite newspaper for a number of reasons, but this made me FURIOUS. Women in the Olympics gave us some of the most amazing moments of the whole summer. Katherine Grainger. Jessica Ennis. Victoria Pendleton. Laura Trott. Jade Jones. Rebecca Adlington. Ellie Simmonds. Charlotte Dujardin. Nicola Adams. All these women and so many more had become household names only weeks previously, yet nobody at the Telegraph seemed to twig that, actually, women’s sport can be interesting and exciting and inspiring too. And people want to hear about it!
I think all this contributes to a much bigger problem. Yes it’s annoying for sports fans like me to not see my heroes on the telly, or be teased a bit by the boys at training. But I’ll get over it. The issue is this; at the age of 14, girls are dropping out of sport at twice the rate of their male friends. Sure, it’s important to keep fit and healthy but it’s about so much more than that; sport is such an amazing thing. It’s given me the best friends. When you do sport with someone you see each other at your very lowest and at your very best – there’s no pretending to be someone you aren’t, or pretending you don’t care. Teamwork, how to put up with people you don’t get on with, how to resolve conflicts for the greater good, how to take constructive criticism; all these things are what sport teaches you. Sport gives you self confidence like nothing else – you learn what you’re capable of and no matter your natural talent or the level you play at sport shows that hard work pays off. Sport teaches girls to value their bodies by what they are capable of rather than what they look like. Sport teaches you how to manage my time, how to prioritise, how to think about how your actions will impact the future (even if that future is only monday’s 2k test).
So this is my issue. By patronising women, or worse, ignoring them, sports journalism, and the sporting world in general is perpetuating the stupid attitudes that prevent teenage girls from participating in the best thing in the world. Things are changing – but there’s still a long way to go.