Olympics 2012: this could be the best Games ever for women

As the London Olympics welcome more women competitors than ever before in a wider range of events,  Sue Tibballs of the UK’s Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, asks why feminists allowed sport to become a safe male haven for chauvinists of every class and nation?

Sue Tibballs
19 July 2012

This is going to be a great summer for women’s sport. The London 2012 Games will be, across a number of measures, the best Games ever for women. Women will participate in every sport for the first time ever (including boxing), there are more medals available (132 compared to 127 in Beijing); every country (including Saudi Arabia for the first time) will send female athletes; and more women have been involved in delivering the Games than ever before, including, in Debbie Jevons,  the first Director of Sport of an Organising Committee.

There is even equality in the ceremonial roles – men, as well as women, will be holding the cushions at the medal presentations. And they might - just might – be giving more medals to Britain’s women than Britain’s men. At least, it is going to be close.

But let’s not get too carried away. The Olympics are not typical. For four weeks every four years, sportswomen get as much coverage as men – sometimes more. Then comes the closing ceremony and the women go back into the ghetto where the traditional media thinks they belong.

Routine chauvinism

In the normal run of sports reporting, women’s sport occupies only 5% of media coverage. When women’s sport is given a good space or slot, it is too often because of some outmoded sexist remark. Remember sports commentators Andy Grey and Richard Keys and the female lineswoman who they believed needed teaching the offside rule? Or it may result from an argument about an apparent act of sexism itself.  Remember the furore surrounding publication of the BBC’s all-male short list for their Sports Personality of the Year awards last Christmas?

Sport is the bit of society that the women’s movement overlooked, that gender equality left aside. A piece of Victoriana still largely dominated by men and men’s sport – and by a male culture that, in pockets, provides one of the last safe havens for chauvinists.

Why? Partly because the women’s movement has been led by – well, women, few of whom will have a strong interest in or a positive experience of sport. The policy world is filled with bookish men who looked down on the jocks, and were likely humiliated by them at school, so they don’t have much interest. Structurally, British sport has been a largely voluntary structure with representative governance models. So the ‘blazers’ of sport, as they are called, have tended to ensure that sport reflects traditions rather than keeps up with the times.

And then there’s football. British sport is dominated by one game, football, a sport which has gone out of its way to suppress women’s football – banning women’s matches from its stadia in the Thirties and continuing to tolerate sexism in a way that it will no longer tolerate racism or homophobia.

So women’s sport certainly has a challenge on its hands before it can realise its full potential. But there are signs of a change for the better.

Let’s start at the elite level. The media profile of women’s sport is getting better: women’s football, cricket and rugby have all had blazes of real glory in recent years driven by superb international appearances. When the women’s cricket team won the World Twenty20 Cricket in 2009 they received almost as much coverage as the men’s team – which didn’t win. The Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2010 received broad coverage on Sky, and The FA’s Women’s Super League is now broadcast regularly live on ESPN and attracts a comparable audience to men’s Scottish Premier League. The most recent qualifier for the England women’s football team in the European Championships against Holland attracted an audience of 1.7 million on BBC2.

This is not the result of some sort of political correctness. Research carried out by WSFF shows that sports fans – most of whom are men – are actually very positive about women’s sport. Sports fans say they think women’s sport is on a better upward trajectory than men’s sport; they say it is great quality and 61% say they would like to see more. It is beginning to look as though the regular 5% market share for women’s sport may not reflect actual demand from the fans themselves. A quick look at social media bears this out: women’s sport and female athletes get a much higher profile in social media than they do in traditional print.

An increase in media interest could also begin to bring pressure for change in another area that is stuck in the past: the world of sports sponsorship.

It’s not just the elite

WSFF has now published two reports looking at the commercial sponsorship of women’s sport. The most recent, entitled Big Deal? finds that female-only sport is currently attracting just 0.5% of all commercial sponsorship deals.  Yes, you heard right: 0.5%? Even we at WSFF were taken aback by that figure. Looking at the audiences and potential audiences for women’s sport, it is clear that rights holders, the sponsors and the agencies are missing a trick in the women’s sport market. It is under-capitalised, un-cluttered and offers great return on investment. It is a market on the up and ripe for investment.

But what about the grass-roots? After all, the fact that a handful of elite female athletes are not getting as much attention or money as they deserve is certainly unfortunate, but surely, some will ask, there are plenty of other more important issues facing women in Britain today?

The fact is that celebrating women’s sporting achievements can have a positive impact on all women, of all ages. And the reverse is, sadly, also true.  Not celebrating achievements has a negative impact. The success of women’s sport has ramifications not just for the athletes currently involved. It has implications right across society.

WSFF’s latest report entitled Changing the Game, for Girls, looks at the reasons girls disengage from sport and activity as they grow up. And one clear finding is that being sporty is still not seen to be aspirational – or even normal – for girls as it is for boys. Indeed, sporty girls may be viewed with suspicion by other girls who believe they are not paying enough attention to their appearance. They are not being sufficiently feminine. More than half of all girls and boys agree that “there are more opportunities for boys to succeed in sport than girls” and 43% of all secondary age girls agree that “there aren’t many sporting role models for girls”.

The consequence of this is that, at age 14, only 12% of girls in this country meet the official guidelines for physical activity (roughly half the number of boys at the same age). Our research for Changing the Game found that even though parents have the greatest influence on activity levels, schools are best-placed to effect change. The provision of school sport varies hugely across the country, with some schools managing to get almost all their female students involved. But across education as a whole, we are still failing: today, more than half of all secondary girls agree that “they are put off sport and physical activity because of their experiences of school sport and PE”.

So what happens to the elite athletes does matter. Young women and girls urgently need role models; our culture needs a shift to celebrating fit, active and - yes – sporty women.

Which is why a great Olympics for women will be something to celebrate.  WSFF is launching a campaign called “Go Girl”. If you would like to give a shout-out for women’s sport this summer, then visit our website and back our campaign. We want to mark the achievements of all women Olympians, but also to carry that spirit forward into making 2013 the breakthrough year for media coverage and sponsorship of women’s sport.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData