The Last Word: A gender gap that shows no sign of closing

Take the media-driven 'personality' out of the BBC jamboree then true achievement can be rewarded

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The Independent Online

People have actually felt obliged in this last week to declare sport to be sexist. What next? Are they primed to inform us apartheid was racist?

Sport splits by gender just as apartheid split sections of society by pigmentation of the skin. Of course, the crucial difference between sport and apartheid is that in sport there are justifiable reasons for division; namely the obvious physiological and anatomical factors.

Yet like it or not, the overwhelming majority of sport is sexist because it deems men to be superior to women and runs separate categories accordingly. They are separated because the competition between males and females wouldn't be competitive. If you have an issue with this, please email

So why the current outcry?All because of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, a cheek-wrenching yawner of a show which is only famous because of the debateit stirs and the wider issues it is so adept at provoking. Here is a classic in the SPOTY genre: no woman has been included on the 10-strong 2011 shortlist. Cue so many headlines the BBC's publicity department has probably decided to get the hell out of Salford for the rest of the year. Their job is done.

Of course, the indignation did not focus on the essential inequity of sport but rather the inequity of the coverage of sport. In truth, it is difficult to differentiate between the two, and if you believe it is not I would suggest the lack of oxygen your brain is receiving should force you to whip your head out of the sand.

Sure, castigate those ghastly, testicle-yielding sports editors who voted for the nominations and who overlooked the achievements of the likes of Sarah Stevenson (taekwondo) and Chrissie Wellington (triathlon). But instead figure that they opted for those such as Andy Murray and Amir Khan,who don't need their sports placed in brackets.

If it was Simon Stevenson and Christopher Wellington would they had made the cut? No. Because they are judged against their male counterparts. At this point one should ask oneself, however uncomfortable the question may be, whether it is inevitable that Usain Bolt garners more column inches for being the fastest human on Earth than Carmelita Jeter does for being the fastest woman. The answer has to be in the affirmative. But does that mean Jeter deserves to be jettisoned from the sporting narrative altogether? It is in this regard where the detractors have a point. Jeter's achievement is just as big as that of Bolt, and the media and thus the public should be mindful and respectful of that.

I don't believe any sports editor would have been deliberately sexist when he wrote down his selections. In a hurried manner, he probably relied on instinct, and the instinct didn't suggest any females. The problem is a female sports editor's instincts would have forced her to search for an appropriate female – alas, there aren't any female sports editors.

I'm not going to sit here and slate the sports media for not hiring enough females as if I felt that strongly I'd give up my job and so help the process. Yet it is clearly an area of concern. The BBC do have a duty in their role of public-service broadcaster and SPOTY could be as good as place as any to trigger a cultural and, yes, institutional shift.

The "personality" part of the title should be deleted forthwith. Personality implies most popular, and as the media hold such sway in determining a sporting figure's popularity, that is intrinsically unfair. "Sports Person of the Year" would be OK, but the "Sports Achievement of the Year" would be better.

How to measure one achievement against the other? Allow the public to decide, just as they do now. But there should be a quota of females on the shortlist, just as there should be a quota of women's sport coverage in all media.

"Quota" is a dirty word for columnists; as well as being very useful. They substitute "quota" for "tokenism" and so damn the concept. But let's be clear. Tokenism implies somebody who doesn't deserve to be in a job, or on a shortlist, and is only there because they happen to be a woman. In contrast, a quota system attacks a bias which stops someone from being in a job, or on a shortlist, because they happen to be a woman. Sports coverage is biased in this country. Nobody can deny that.

It is possible to rise above the entrenched favouritism, however, and those such as Kelly Holmeshave proven so. It is ironic that equestrianism, the one sport where men and women can seemingly compete on level footing, has enjoyed two female SPOTY winners – and that both of them were members of the royal family. But that's personality for you and that's why the dreadful term should have no place in any reputable awards system.

But then, whoever said the Sports Personality of the Year was reputable? Ever since Princess Anne won and two nobodies called Barry John and George Best came second and third respectively, it has been the most transparent of fakes.

That is no more a sexist statement that it is an anti-royal statement. However, the problem with sport remains where the gender gap ends and the real sexism begins. However complex the argument appears, it's time to unblur those lines.