Women in sport: Why unparalleled success of 2012 must not fade into history

The Olympics brought Britain a staggering series of golden girls but inspiration alone cannot solve the endemic issues facing women in sport, finds Robin Scott-Elliot

There was
Jessica Ennis. There was Nicola Adams. There was Ellie Simmonds, Victoria
Pendleton, Laura Trott, Katherine Grainger. Never before have so many British
sportswomen been so recognisable than in 2012, the mother of all sporting years
in this country.

Yet for all the unparalleled success of our leading sportswomen, and the wider achievements and gains made across female sport globally – this year 4,847 women competed in the Olympic Games, the most ever – there is a brewing crisis in the number of girls and women playing sport.

The other side of the story, the one that struggles beneath the billboards of Ennis that dotted the country this summer, is a numbers game: nine out of 10 girls aged 14 fail to meet official guidelines for physical activity, four out of five women are not taking enough exercise. There are poor numbers among boys too, but still twice as many take part in physical activity than girls.

Some wider numbers: British women won 11 of the buoyant host nation's 29 gold medals in London, yet pre-Games studies found women's sport fills five per cent of the space the media in this country put aside for sport. A study into sponsorship in the UK calculated women's sport receives between a half and one per cent of the commercial spend on sport.

"The issues are endemic and chronic," said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation. "We can't solve all this overnight but we need to capitalise on the level of interest [generated by the Olympics]."

It is not only women's sport that is anxious to cling on to Olympic coat tails, but it presents an opportunity that it has never had before – and will never have again.

The movement

Yesterday Katherine Grainger, London gold medallist, stood up in Committee Room Three in the House of Lords and addressed an audience of sportswomen, campaigners, administrators and politicians assembled by the All Party Parliamentary Group on women's sport. The recognition is there that this is it.

In one corner sat the granddaughter and great grand-daughter of Sylvia Pankhurst. In another Hope Powell, England and Great Britain football manager. In another Tanni Grey-Thompson, one of the prime parliamentary movers in women's sport.

What to do? Harriet Harman suggested a nine-point plan, including using the Equalities Act to ensure equal prize money. "Sue the backsides off people," proposed Harman, urging her audience to be "strident, stroppy and don't back down". Harman called it a coalition for women's sport.

Clare Balding, now a noisily effective standard-bearer for women's sport, added three more points to the plan of her own and by the end of the 90 minutes of debate inside the wood-panelled chamber the tally was rising rapidly.

"Women having freedom to play sport leads directly to women having political freedom," said Balding, who suggested imagery, investment and information as her key points.

Sue Tibballs and the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation have a plan of their own, one aimed in particular at addressing the dire numbers surrounding female participation, and it is the Olympics that has to be used as the obvious catalyst.

"The London Olympics and Paralympics were the greatest Games for women ever," said Tibballs. "[It made] 2012 a landmark year for women's sport. But we cannot rely on goodwill alone to overcome the obstacles that are preventing women's sport taking its proper place in public life. Currently we have a media that values male achievements over females' and a prevailing culture where girls grow up wanting to be thin rather than active and healthy. This has to change or the Olympic legacy will have failed for women."

Female leadership in sport

The Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation wants women to make up a quarter of all board members of UK governing bodies within five years. Under-representation at senior level in sport has long been an issue but it is one that has been slowly changing in recent years.

Jennie Price heads Sport England, Sue Campbell and Liz Nicholl lead UK Sport – the body behind much of the Olympic success – while Heather Rabatts has become the first woman to join the FA's board and Debbie Jevons has moved from organising the Olympics to doing a similar job for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. There is a slow but steady expansion.

Inspiration – the Olympic effect

There is one obvious path to greater participation – the inspiration of the women, and men, who took part and succeeded in London. It is a well-known route but one that no previous Olympic Games has managed to send its host nation happily along.

"It's been the most incredible summer," said Katherine Grainger. "Everywhere I have gone since then, everyone is still buzzing. There is a sense anything is possible."

There is also a reality, and this is what used to separate the sexes, that never before have girls and women had so many role models to either aspire to or be inspired by. They have been there before but known largely to the already committed. Post-London it is at last different and that gives real hope that female numbers can rise. The next participation figures come out in December.

"What we saw in the British team was women across so many sports delivering," said Grainger. "The standard of women's sport, that's what we proved this year. Those moments in the Olympics created role models. One of biggest legacies we can have is on girls and this new choice of role models, all different shapes and sizes and backgrounds. It is not about getting into sport to become an Olympian it's about getting girls and women fit. It's about women feeling that being fit and healthy is a good thing. It's about access and opportunity. It's about creating a culture. There are so many benefits – social, physical, health – it's a no-brainer."

Simple measures proposed include telling bodies that hand out public funds, like Sport England, to spend in particular on schemes to increase female participation. School sport is key, as it is at school age that significant numbers of girls drift out of sport. The WSFF wants a new national strategy for PE in schools – government plans for school sport remain unconvincing.

Media coverage

This is the sorest point for all involved, and the one that raises most hackles. Both Harriet Harman and Sue Tibballs want the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to hold an inquiry into media coverage of women's sport across broadcast and print. There is a chronic under-representation of women at all levels of the sports media and a lack of coverage of women's events outside the multi-sports festivals like the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.

As a publicly funded body the BBC will come under particular pressure to readdress the way it covers women's sport, and they are soon to appoint a women's sport editor as one step in that direction. Sky insists, with some justification, that it covers a good range of women's sport but it is on free-to-air platforms where the need is greatest.

Some governing bodies, notably the England and Wales Cricket Board, have taken more significant steps than others to push coverage of their women's team, while the Rugby Football Union has sought to play women's games in tandem with men's internationals, with both being covered live.

The FA yesterday announced it would for the first time look to sell TV rights to the women's game separate from men's. It is football that may hold the key, the best-known and most accessible of any sport, men's or women's, the one capable of being the biggest draw, on pitch, in stands and on TV.

But the FA is funding its new drive in the women’s game with £3.5m over four years. In a sport awash with money, is it enough Powell was asked? “No,” she said.

What women’s sport in this country does have right now and for the first time ever, for all the barriers it faces both in getting women to take part and getting the wider sporting world to treat it as an equal, is a new momentum.

“We have a moment in time to solve the problem,” said Balding. “We’ve got to hold on to the positive energies because we’ve got to change this. We have critical mass right now. We have the power.”

12% of 14-yr-olds doing enough physical activity

39% of Britain's medallists in London were women

11 golds won by British women at this summer's Olympics

1 in 8 (2.72 million) women regularly play sport in England.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?