Written by Clare Balding


A Sporting Chance

Where are women judged solely on their performance? Clare Balding knows a place.

Dan Sheridan @INPHO / Emily Scarratt kicks for goal in the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 final in Paris

I’m on the Eurostar from Paris back to London, drinking tea that is slightly ruined by the lack of fresh milk and staring at low-lying mist that has settled into the pockets and dips of the French fields. It’s the early train and consequently is full of people heading to business meetings. The men are in suits and the women are wearing smart, practical trouser or skirt suits and flat shoes, some of them trainers. Of course they are carrying bags and I suspect they have heels ready to produce three steps before the meeting room, because we all know we can’t go to a meeting in flat shoes.

Or can we?

I know there are ‘society rules’ but we are the generation who can write new ones. I am not advocating all women suddenly stop washing or bothering to wear any smart clothes at all, just making the point that if we all started a little revolution in our own backyard, we could shift the tectonic plates that decree women are constantly judged on visual appearance and their ability to have children.

If the clock says you’re not fast enough, the stats say you don’t score enough, or the fitness test says you’re lagging behind, you lose. It’s a brutal world but at least it’s honest.

I work in sport, a world in which men and women are defined by performance.

It’s also a place where women know they can turn up in trainers, they can have children, they can be straight or gay, married or not and as long as they train hard and have talent, they will succeed.

Mark Shearman / Gold medal-winner Jo Pavey found her best form at 40, ten months after the birth of her second child

Jo Pavey, who won gold over 10,000 metres at the European Championships this summer said it just made her laugh to think that she’d found her best form at the age of 40, ten months after her second child. Laughing is joyful, and the perfect riposte to those who ever thought it couldn’t be done.

Think of Nicola Adams and you will think of her megawatt smile. Always smiling, even as she punched her way to a Commonwealth Games gold medal to add to her Olympic title in boxing. If people question her right to be in the ring, she just smiles and then gets on with it. Kelly Holmes combined working life in the army with training for the Olympics. After years of injury woes, she went out on a glorious high with two gold medals in Athens. No one could ever question her commitment, her strength of spirit or her fitness.

Sport for women is more than just girls running round in circles or kicking a ball; it is a statement of intent. When England’s women lifted the Rugby World Cup, I cheered not just a sporting success but a triumph for a group made up of teachers, mothers, a policewoman, a plumber and a lifeguard. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Rugby Sevens (which is in the Olympics in Rio) would offer paid contracts to the women’s team. The contracts are worth £18,000 a year, less than most of them are earning in the jobs they will now give up. My temptation to rage is counter-balanced by the players telling me that they are thrilled because “at least it’s a start”.

Sport gives women a chance to share the benefits that men have always recognised: a chance to be judged on ability alone; a network of friends and colleagues who will catch the ball when you chuck it at them; a core strength of body and mind, and a confidence that allows you to focus on your strengths instead of worrying about your weaknesses.

I know sport cannot solve every problem in the world but as I look down at my walking boots, I feel pretty certain that neither can a mute acceptance of ‘society rules’.

Dan Sheridan @INPHO/caption: England’s women win the Rugby World Cup, beating Canada in the final in Paris

Women in sport – the numbers

Andrea Hubert takes a look at the facts and figures surrounding women in sport.

• According to research done by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (www.wsff.org.uk), around 3.1 million women take part in sport at least three times a week. At 13.8%, this is the highest rate since records began – around 487,000 more than in 2005-06. (Except in London, where there’s officially no increase. Come on Zone 1!)

• Conversely, the WSFF also learned that a mere 5% of media coverage in the UK is devoted to women’s sport, although the BBC says it devotes 1000 hours per year to women’s sport broadcasts.

• In 2013, female participation increased significantly for every age group except in the 20-24 year-old group, where there has been no change. But before you twentysomethings get smug, the picture still shows a significant decline has occurred in 16-24 year olds in the long term.

• According to www.sportandrecreation.org, we’re less active than we think we are. A survey by the National Obesity Observatory discovered only 4% of women actually met the government’s physical activity recommendations, which isn’t ideal.

• Sport England (http://www.sportengland.org) is trying to identify the key reasons for lack of motivation with its “Encouraging Take Up” campaign. Sport England has studied the factors that affect sport take-up levels in different demographics and regions, and have loads of information about how you can get involved (visit http://www.sportengland.org/encouraging-take-up for details).

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Written by Clare Balding

Winner of the BAFTA Special Award and RTS Presenter of the Year Award for her expert coverage of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Clare Balding is one of Britain's leading and best-loved broadcasters, presenters and writers. Photo credit Bill Walters.