It's winning that counts, not looks

The subliminal message: don't put your daughter in the stadium or she'll take drugs and turn gay
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WOMEN IN sport have always had a hard time, and I'm not just talking about getting into the MCC. All sorts of reasons were cited in the first flush of female emancipation in the early years of the century, in order to keep women out of sport - everything from distemper and fainting fits to - nudge, nudge - women's problems. When five of the first six in the 1928 Olympic women's 800m collapsed across the finishing line, the event was judged (by a committee of men) to be too hard. It was discontinued until 1960.

There are other ways of demeaning sportswomen. In the late-Seventies, the Pythonesque US comedy group National Lampoon released an album called That's Not Funny, That's Sick. It featured an unforgettable spoof commentary on women's gymnastics. The commentator gets more and more worked up describing what he sees as a provocatively elastic routine, until he can no longer contain himself, and yells out: "And I'd really love to fuck her." It is a philosophy borne out by the success of Loaded magazine and its peers.

Witness the orgasmic reception afforded the mediocre Russian tennis player, Anna Kornikova, whose nickname on the circuit, incidentally, is "Pornikova". To their eternal discredit, the Women's Tennis Association is ploughing this particular furrow, allowing their "prettier" stars to appear in magazine spreads, practically flashing their wares. Similarly, other sports, such as athletics and swimming, have authorised calendars of their women stars in pin-up poses.

Fifteen years ago, there was widespread press apoplexy when the British runner, Shireen Bailey, was denied a place on the British European Cup athletics team as she didn't possess an up to date "sex-test" certificate. It was not just the indignity of this highly suspect practice, which was introduced in the Seventies after several genetic males had competed as women. It was exacerbated for the British press because the favourite for the event was the world record holder, Jarmila Kratochvilova, of the then Czechoslovakia. Putting it kindly, which many papers didn't, Bailey was a pin-up, Krato' was not!

This particular strain of malice against winning women has resurfaced this month with a series of tabloid articles decrying muscular tennis women in the Italian Open last week. One paper sported a photo of the French star, Mary Pierce, hitting a shot such that it accentuates bulging biceps. Women have become athletic monsters run the headlines for the Italian Open, just as they will in the French Open in 10 days time and at Wimbledon next month.

Now there is an argument for grace over power in many sports, but this isn't it. It's far more insidious. This particular piece camouflages its true intent with reference to the likes of Madonna and Demi Moore's gym workouts, and details Pierce's recourse to weightlifting and heavy training in order to compete against "tomboy players".

This is getting closer to the truth, as are references to muscular women players making past male champions look like "powder puffs", and the infamous quote from Hana Mandlikova about Martina Navratilova that "it was difficult playing against a man". The game is given away in the penultimate paragraph. "The world of women's tennis has always had some players who look more masculine than others." As Jorge Luis Borges wrote: "To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it." So, what is the word? Is it "drugs", or the love that dares not speak its name.

For, despite the accent on Mary Pierce, the latest outbreak of misogyny is really about another Frenchwoman, Amelie Mauresmo. And, despite never once mentioning homosexuality or lesbianism, the less than subliminal message is an update on "don't put your daughter on the stage" (or she'll turn into a whore); now it is, "don't put your daughter in the stadium" (or she'll take drugs and turn gay). Amelie Mauresmo is overtly gay, she travels the tennis circuit with her girl-friend, and has publicly announced both facts. And she gets my vote anyday over little Miss Smarmy, the "petite, feminine" Martina Hingis, who, when beaten by Mauresmo, called her "half a man".

Another disturbing factor is that the most vitriolic article on the Italian Open was written by a woman. As my wife, a company executive, tells me: "It's not so much the glass ceiling you have to worry about, it's the other women." So, is that what it's really all about? Successful sportswomen are contradicting the zeitgeist, by achieving something without recourse to good looks? In sport, give me a winner anyday.