The Big Question: How did Britain's sportswomen become such world-beaters?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

England have reached the final of the European Championship in women's football. When they take on Germany at 5pm tomorrow in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, it will mark the first time England's women have made a major final in 25 years – in fact, since they were defeated by Sweden in the inaugural European Championships in 1984. Though they are underdogs, the team's strong run through to the final suggests their place there is merited.

And it follows a remarkable 12 months for Britain's women in several different sports, starting with notable successes at last year's Beijing Olympics and going through to the cricket team's victory in the Twenty20 World Cup in June. There are strong hopes that the London Games in 2012 will be the site of several home-grown female victories.

So just how good are our female footballers?

The odds on Hope Powell, England's head coach, replacing Fabio Capello as manager of the men's team have shortened dramatically over the past few days. It will never happen, of course, but Powell, who scored 35 goals in 66 appearances for England, has impressed ever since she took over the team in 1998. She said then that it would take around a decade to make England world-class, and she has been proven right.

Even with the midfielder Kelly Smith, widely regarded as one of the best players of her generation, England are far from being the finished article, however. They proved this in losing 2-1 to Italy in the first game of these finals in Lahti, Finland. But their steady rise reflects the fact that football has been the fastest-growing participation sport for British women since the turn of the century.

That may not have enabled the FA to fulfil the wish of its former chief executive, Adam Crozier, for a women's professional football league, but it does bode well for a period of consistently high performances. So too does the victory of Mo Marley's team in the European under-19 championships in July.

What about in other sports?

Partly because of Beijing, there are now a number of British sportswomen who have risen, suddenly, from the rank of club competitor to global brand. Rebecca Adlington is a world-beating swimmer; Christina Ohuruogu and Jessica Ennis are champion athletes; Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Romero, and Victoria Pendleton are champion cyclists. Meanwhile, 40 year-old Scotswoman Catriona Matthew won the British Open golf championship only a few weeks after giving birth to her second child, garnering a huge amount of positive publicity for women's sport. Only the fourth British woman to win a major, she responded to a question about prize money by saying she didn't know what she'd won. "I'll have to look it up in the papers," she said.

The success of the country's women crciketers is equally striking. Led by Charlotte Edwards, England became world champions for the second time when they beat New Zealand by six wickets in the Twenty20 final at Lord's. Claire Taylor, one of England's batsmen, had earlier in the season named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, the first time a woman had received the accolade in its 120 year history.

Was Beijing a turning point?

Team GB had several high-profile champions before Beijing – the retired paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson primary among them. But the sheer scale of success in Beijing, coupled with anticipation of repeat performances in east London in under three years' time, does seem to have marked the crossing of a threshold for women's sport in this country.

"We have seen some really powerful female role models emerging here," the then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said after the Games. It was the most successful Games for Britain's women, who collectively won seven gold medals, since the London Games of 1908 (where they won five). Aside from Cooke's road race victory (Team GB's first gold of the tournament), Adlington won two gold medals in the swimming pool, Romero and Pendleton won one each in the Velodrome, Ohuruogu won a thrilling 400m race, and the Yngling trio of Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb, and Pippa Wilson proved victorious too.

Some of these (such as Adlington and Cooke) were marginal surprises; others were not. Marketing companies, politicians, and sports administrators clamoured to associate themselves with medal-winning women on the athlete's parade through London's streets, in a way that suggested their fame would endure. It's widely hoped that that in turn will help boost participation in the future.

So we're bound to do even better in 2012?

Not necessarily. Most of the athletes who won gold in Beijing are expected to compete in east London, but their competitors will have improved. Ohuruogu will defend her crown barely a mile from her place of birth in Newham, east London. Other young stars to watch out for include Ennis, recently crowned world heptathlon champion, 18-year-old triathlon star Hollie Avil, 20 year-old sprinter Perri Shakes-Drayton, 20 year-old middle-distance runner Stephanie Twell, and 14 year-old diver Megan Sylvester, a kind of female riposte to Tom Daley.

Why are we better at some sports than others?

There does seem a strong correlation between funding and success. But because this funding usually comes ultimately from the taxpayer, there are political costs to the calls for greater funding, especially in a recession. The two sports where large-scale funding seems most clearly to have been vindicated in terms of results are cricket and cycling. In the former, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) invested heavily in the women's game, and won plaudits for placing key players on central contracts; in the latter, the likes of Romero, Pendleton and Cooke have joined men such as Sir Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins in profiting from extensive lottery money.

What obstacles are still in the way of British sportswomen?

A fairer spread of events between the genders (and within the same tournament) would help. After Beijing, for example, Pendleton said publicly that she might have got more than one gold medal if she hadn't been restricted to three events in the velodrome (the men had seven).

All sports administrators complain about a lack of funding but it's true that women in general are under-funded compared with men. One of the consequences of this seems to be that there are not enough top-class women coaches in British sport (Hope Powell is an exception).

Partly because it plays well politically, many politicians (including Mr Burnham and the Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell) have spoken out regularly about the media's bias towards male competitors. There is merit in their argument: despite improved representation in sports pages recently, women's success doesn't get the coverage of their male counterparts.

And, as leading women argue, true parity will only come when the likes of our women cricket and football teams are in the headlines because of their lack of success, rather than the opposite.

Is this the dawn of an era of sporting glory for Britain's women?


* Beijing marked a record haul from an Olympic Games; we can expect more of the same at London 2012.

* We have now have enough role models with a big enough profile to boost grass roots participation.

* Victorious cricketers (and hopefully footballers) suggest the set-up in those two sports is working well.


* Given the link between funding and success, the recession may jeopardise resources for several sports

* There is no guarantee that the gold medallists from Beijing will be able to repeat their success in 2012.

* In several sports, whether team or individual, British women are still way off top class standards.