You can't play snooker without balls: Steve Davis saying women can't compete with men at the top has sent critics potty

It is the type of claim to drive the mildest mannered folk potty and send ripples across the smoothest of green baize surfaces. The fact it came from a master of the art only made it worse. The normally hushed reverence that surrounds the sport of snooker erupted into a fierce row last night after six-times world snooker champion Steve Davis said women lacked the "single-minded obsessive type of brain" to compete with men at the highest level of the sport.

Davis said he could not envisage a woman competing in the final stages of the World Snooker Championship, even though it is open to female players. He was backed by the world's leading women snooker players last night, but Sally Gunnell, the Olympic 400-metre hurdles gold medallist, said it was not the case that women lacked single-minded determination to compete at the top flight of any sport.

Davis, who will be a BBC pundit in today's World Championship final, told the BBC World Service's Sports Hour: "The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don't think so many females have."

Women lacked "that single-minded determination in something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick".

Maria Catalano, the world number one female snooker player, told The Independent on Sunday: "I do agree with Steve – I don't think women will ever compete with men at the top level. I believe that male and female species are wired mentally different. A woman's brain is better at multi-tasking. I believe a man is more single-minded, so has a stronger concentration on one thing at a time."

Reanne Evans, the women's world number three, who has a seven-year-old daughter, also agreed with Davis, telling the BBC: "I think women find it difficult just to concentrate on snooker. I've got my little girl and you're always thinking about them. The men's game has the backing behind them that they can afford to have a part-time job, or no job, and just practise and work at the snooker, whereas there's no money in the women's game whatsoever."

Gunnell told The IoS: "Paula Radcliffe, who had children as well as running – was somebody who could do both at the highest level. To achieve at any high level in any sport you've got to be completely focused and dedicated, you live and breathe every moment of what you're doing and a number of women have proved that they can do that."

Tracey Crouch, Conservative member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said: "Women players do need to have lots of different priorities, such as childcare, but I don't think he was right to suggest that as a consequence they cannot compete at the highest level."

Ruth Holdaway, head of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, said: "Comments such as Steve Davis's are extremely unhelpful and serve only to engender a continued sense that snooker remains behind closed doors for women and girls."

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