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.

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