International Women’s Day – fair play in sport?

International Women’s Day – fair play in sport?

It’s good to see International Women’s Day again making an impact in the UK on March 8th. Many believe the gender issue isn’t a big deal in the western world any more, but it is. At the risk of cliché, gender bias remains institutionalised in the UK.

There are endless ways to illustrate this. One of them is sport.

First a well done – to those who created the This Girl Can campaign. It’s well put-together and I hope it’s hugely successful in encouraging more women into recreational and competitive sport. It’s also great that the BBC Sport website is putting some effort into highlighting the impact of women in sport. I hope that continues.

Although it’s undermined by the BBC’s persistence in categorising football, cricket and 6 Nations with the prefix “women’s”. It must be time the Beeb dropped the gender reference, or started using “men’s” as well. It’s devalues the product.

Watching sport and my early sporting heroes as a child, this distinction of merit based on gender never once occurred to me. Why wouldn’t I think that Ingrid Kristiansen winning four London marathons and smashing the world record was anything less than the pinnacle? Or that Martina Navratilova claiming a staggering 59 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles was somehow diminished because she wasn’t male?

Of course I revered Ayrton Senna, Miguel Indurain, Michel Platini and Jerry Rice too. And therein lies a problem. All four of those competed in sports which never involved women on TV. I could watch athletics or tennis and be in awe of outstanding athletic achievement with no gender filter, but how hard must it be to encourage girls to take up something apparently only attended and played by men?

There’s some movement here, at last, but it’s still a major issue. Occasionally women play team sports or ride bikes on TV now but the discrepancy in coverage, and therefore in pay, is enormous. And yet the entertainment value can be just as high – or as low.

And when women do make it to our screens, is it always for sporting reasons? Image is influential in all sport but distastefully so for women. It was painful to see Eugenie Bouchard asked to “give us a twirl” by a male presenter at this year’s Australian Open. We – and by we I specifically mean men – have to do more to make this stop. £5.136 billion to show men’s football on TV is indefensibly obscene. Stop that and invest the big money in redressing centuries of sporting discrimination.

As I post this up, Katarina Johnson-Thompson is being awesome at the European Indoor Athletics and Lizzy Yarnold is being awesome at the Skeleton World Championships. I do hope their achievements help generate some positive change for the equality of women in sport once March 8th passes for another year.

RESEARCH QUESTION: To mark International Women’s Day 2015, which great athletes, past and present, should we celebrate?

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