TELEVISION / Out for the count: the myth of the gentle sex

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE price of a large white wok, Saint Rupert's chosen few can now watch sporting action round the clock. The earthbound channels have confronted this threat to their hegemony with documentaries that, as it were, look up the skirts of sport - Naked Sport, More Than a Game, On the Line, even Saint and Greavesie's chat show deserves a mention. Sooner or later, when BSkyB has snaffled up the rights to every major event in the calendar, programmes made by current affairs journalists rather than sports boffins will be as close to the real thing as anyone will get if they don't own a wok.

The problem is that the bigger the sport, the more protective the owners of the broadcasting rights. Not long ago, Arena profiled the sports writer Hugh McIlvanney at a world heavyweight title fight, and although the footage of the bout had cobwebs on it, the viewer had to make do with stills of the actual combat. Last night, Champions: Hard Hitting Women (C4) saw that right hook coming a mile off and dodged it by homing in on women's boxing. As yet, no one is too protective of the television rights here.

We didn't find out if they will be, either, although one suspects not. The sight of these girls pounding the hide off one another proved that they know just as well as the boys what to do in the ring, but outside they've got a lot of catching up to do. Jane 'Rocky' Johnson looked mean enough in training, but when she'd finished with her squat jerks and pivot thrusts, a nasty grimace mutated into a smile. She'll never get anywhere with that pleasant personality. And take Sam from Streatham, a world champ in the making who boxes to work out the frustration of working for London Underground. Nothing here about a deprived inner-city childhood or being beaten up at school. If women's boxing is to progress, it will need to work at that heady cocktail of brainlessness and pretentiousness that makes the male game so media-friendly.

In female boxing, background has no role to play. Before Deirdre from Dublin flew out to Kansas City to challenge the world champion, we watched her packing in an elegantly appointed drawing room as her cut-glass mother sat by and told us why she disapproved. When Deirdre had her hair done before the fight (a sine qua non of modern male boxing) she described, quiet as a church mouse, the style she was after: 'As long as I look like a girl I don't mind.' Even after the fight she still looked like a girl, which is more than could be said for her opponent, who emerged from 10 rounds with the blackened face of a coal-miner. Deirdre still lost, though, according to the male judges. Women, presumably, are not yet bent enough for this sacred task.

Some things they are getting right. When Dawn from Wigan weighed in at the first British tournament for women, she came in 8lbs over the limit. 'The thing is,' explained her trainer, 'she was hungry.' Half a stone in one meal] Straight out of the heavyweights' training manual.

Some things went undiscussed. For nobility of entertainment, women's boxing may be several notches up from mud- wrestling, but we still could have heard more on who watches, why, and whether sexual excitement pulls anyone of either gender in. Also, women have more tender pectorals than men; apparently they wear breastplates, but are they also protected by a (if you will) gentleman's agreement?

A documentary about anything from boxing to tiddlywinks aims to scoop up a wider, if not a bigger, audience than a normal sports broadcast. The Cutting Edge on Graham Taylor managed it, but it's fair to assume that That's Football] (C4) didn't. A video diary-style year-long insight into the workings of Swindon Town FC that finished after midnight, this was strictly one for the specialist. Allegedly it was about the most dramatic season in the club's history, but any specialist will tell you that Carl Ross's film started one year too early.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away