Special report: Women's sport has far to go, but the wheels turn slowly

Despite the Olympic legacy, women's sport still needs a big push. Here, The Independent on Sunday pledges to do just that...

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The Independent Online

Lizzie Armitstead claimed Britain's first medal of the Olympic Games a year ago today when she hurtled up the Mall to take silver in the cycling road race. It was one of countless inspiring moments provided by sportswomen in a fortnight which revealed the nation's appetite for watching women compete.

After her win, Armitstead commented on the sexism still rife in her sport; and last night experts warned that the progress made last year in pushing women's sport forward was dissipating. A poll published exclusively in The Independent on Sunday reveals that public support is being wasted because of a lack of media coverage. Today, The IoS pledges to consistently and clearly raise awareness on the important subject of creating greater sporting equality. Last week we reported on calls for a female Tour de France; yesterday the sport's international board responded feebly, saying that attempts to "mimic" the men's event would do the sport no favours.

This paper would like to see – and will call for action on:

* Greater efforts to ensure school sport appeals to more girls

* Better publicity for sportswomen

* Better pay for female athletes

* Corporate sponsors investing properly in sportswomen

* Broadcast coverage of Britain's women at all international sporting events

* Women on the boards of all national sporting governing bodies

As part of this, we promise to make sure our pages highlight the best of women's sport, as well as men's.

The startling extent of anonymity experienced by Britain's leading sportswomen is laid bare today in a Populous poll of more than 2,000 adults for the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF). Fewer than one in five knew that Rachel Yankey, England's star forward, plays football. By comparison, 97 per cent knew Wayne Rooney's profession. In golf, fewer than one in 10 knew Catriona Matthew, a Scottish professional and one of Britain's leading players, compared with 65 per cent who recognised Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy.

Only Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill received the recognition enjoyed by her male counterparts. Ennis-Hill is the only woman still competing who made it into the top 10 Olympic sponsorship earners, based on income related exclusively to the Games. The only other two women have both retired – Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Adlington, who came eighth and ninth respectively. Although one in six respondents said they were watching more women's sport since the Olympics, more than a third said they would watch more on television if it was available. Younger viewers (24- to 34-year-olds), were keenest of all, at 42 per cent.

Leora Hanser, director of campaigns at WSFF, said: "Last summer... we had an amazing four weeks of women's sport, but there is no doubt that coverage has dwindled in the past 12 months, which is why this pledge is so important. Role models are crucial in inspiring girls and women to be more active, so we need to make sure that the media gives women's sport the profile it deserves.

"At the moment, almost half of girls think that getting sweaty isn't feminine. We're facing a health crisis in this country, and with young girls aspiring to be thin instead of fit, that's only going to get worse."

Women's sport still gets just 0.5 per cent of all sports sponsorship money, a problem that links back to a lack of media coverage. Ms Hanser said: "Media coverage and sponsorship are two halves of the same coin – unless the media covers women's sport, sponsors won't support it."

Experts say that the issue is not just about elite athletes getting the coverage and pay that they deserve but is also about trying to ensure that generations of girls do not get put off exercise because of a paucity of well-known sportswomen to look up to.

Two-thirds of those surveyed believed female athletes provide better role models for young people than celebrities. But girls start doing less sport than boys from the age of about eight. By the time they are 14, only 12 per cent of girls are active enough, a problem which senior figures in sport last night said could be improved by raising the profile of female sporting role models. At 15, only half as many girls as boys take the recommended amount of exercise.

Nicola Adams, who won the first Olympic women's boxing gold medal, said: "Just from girls seeing me at the Games on TV, we've seen a 76 per cent increase in women in boxing. It made a massive difference. If we could get more women's sport on television the amount of women and girls we'd have involved in sport would be huge."

Adams, who is president of the charity Us Girls which encourages young women from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into sport, added: "Sport can build your confidence and teach you skills – such as working in a team and speaking in public in front of people. There are lots of little things it can help you pick up."

Almost half of all schoolgirls in a recent survey said they believed that getting sweaty was "not feminine" – a perception not helped by having significantly less coverage of sportswomen. Just 5 per cent of media coverage is devoted to women's sport – a figure that briefly changed during the Games, but which campaigners warn is now in danger of dropping.

Ellen White, an England and Arsenal Ladies footballer, believes that "2012 was the year of women in sport and we need to make sure it wasn't just a one-off. We need to plug away and make sure it continues to get the coverage it deserves".

With broadcasters, the picture is improving, albeit slowly. The new channel BT Sport announced last week that it would be broadcasting live from several of the major football matches in the Women's Super League. The BBC also showed every England match in this summer's women's European cup, although the team's disappointing performance probably depressed viewing figures.