women in sport

women in sport
   Historically, women have struggled to be allowed to compete, attract television and sponsor interest, and bring their sporting excellence to public attention. But in the 1990s, the picture changed and, crucially, television and sponsors became interested. Women’s professional golf took a long time to develop in Britain (longer than the US or Europe), but tournaments were covered live by both BBC television and BBC Radio 5 in 1996, and the quality newspapers devote considerable space to women’s events. The first British female golfer to become a popular icon, Laura Davies (also once the world number one), is both talented and successful, and was mentioned in 1996 as a possible BBC Sports Personality of the Year. These advances have seen women golfers commentate for television and radio on men’s tournaments, and over 12,000 spectators watched one day’s play at the 1996 British Open.
   Women’s tennis has the jewel of the Wimbledon tournament televised each year, but the British game has had no success or genuine stars since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977; prize money remains about 75 percent of that of the men. British athletes have a better record: Sally Gunnell has won world and Olympic 400m hurdles medals, and is Britain’s richest ever female athlete (from her numerous sponsorships), while Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread both won Olympic javelin medals in the 1980s, and Ashia Hansen took bronze in the 1996 Olympic long jump.
   In other sports, British women do not fare badly: the hockey team were rather unlucky to only finish fourth at the 1996 Olympics, and the women’s England cricket team have been world champions, although British swimming declined in performance and public profile after Sharron Davies retired. The football team has always struggled (mainly because so many other nations have full-time professional leagues), but women’s matches were televised on Channel 4 in the early 1990s, and international fixtures played at professional clubs (like Luton and Walsall). Women’s football started developing its grassroots in the early 1990s, and many clubs in the national league linked up with men’s teams; Liverpool Ladies take their name from Liverpool FC, who advertise the women’s fixtures and results. A small breakthrough is the £250,000 invested by UK Living in the women’s FA Cup over two years from 1996. That the tide has turned was equally clear in the £100,000 two-year sponsorship agreed for women’s rugby in 1996.
   However, the media depiction of sportswomen has remained problematic, and despite the women’s ample professionalism and high performance, many commentators still repeatedly refer to the femininity of competitors rather than their performance. There have often been blunt remarks about the figure of female shotputters, about the women’s family circumstances or the birth of a child, or women are simply called ‘girls’. This regularly causes controversy, and suggests that male commentators have not accepted women as valid competitors. This is also evident in the general tendency for newspapers to just tag the women’s results on the end of an article about the men. Feminist theorists call this ‘symbolic annihilation’, which is even more insidious than traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity, since it damages the mass interest and appeal that would allow women’s sport to develop, and destroys the level of seriousness with which it is taken.
   The fact that the BBC have broadcast women’s golf live offers some hope, since without television sponsors will not become involved, and this gives governing bodies a good excuse to offer women less prize money (as at Wimbledon). But sponsors remain less interested in women’s sports since they have lower profiles, and so women generally earn a good deal less from their career. They also have to make more financial and personal sacrifices, juggling the competing demands of their sport and their job or family. This of course assumes they are allowed to compete at all, with a predictable and rather sexist storm greeting the decision in 1996 to allow British women to box professionally for the first time. As for spectating, there were signs in the mid-1990s that more women were watching professional sport, and clearly many sports became more accessible to women. But theories about the ‘feminization’ of crowds probably underestimate how many attended in the 1970s and 1980s, and the concept rests on rather dated notions of female passivity and gentleness.
   Women as journalists however still face bigger problems: their numbers started increasing in the late 1980s, and women in the 1990s got bigger and more important events to cover, but no woman has yet presented the top sports programmes, like the Olympics, the FA Cup Final or Match of the Day. Female reporters had to endure considerable hostility and disbelief from male counterparts for years before they became accepted as serious journalists, notably in football, and certain sports appear off limits, with few female reporters at rugby or cricket. Radio has a better story to tell in this sense, with BBC Radio 5 Live featuring a number of female reporters at games (particularly from the early 1990s), and women regularly presenting the station’s high-profile football and general sports programmes. Indeed, women have started producing such programmes as well.
   As simple participants, women have been a target group for decades, with the Sports Council and others trying to entice more women, particularly from working-class and minority backgrounds, to become active in sport and leisure. But all these campaigns have failed to increase attendance rates amongst women (and especially from these specific target backgrounds), and it seems that family demands, considerations of money and time, and dominant cultural norms about ‘femininity’ and appropriate gender roles remain too pressing or strong for many women to feel able to participate. By the mid-1990s, it was suggested that the increased numbers of women entering the workforce was affecting the numbers of female participants in sport and leisure.
   See also: sport, racism in
   Further reading
    Birrell, A. and Cole, J. (eds) (1994) Women, Sport and Culture, Chicago: Human Kinetics.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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