It is a paradox of the age that female athletes are forced to fight tooth and nail for media coverage when the objectification of women is routine. It surely follows that if the door to the market is opened so thoroughly by a female key then visibility should not be a problem.
The Ladies Golf Union, the body responsible for promoting and administering the women’s amateur game, has recently employed the services of a public-relations guru to crack this conundrum with a series of aggressive media initiatives, including the ramping up of social media activity. The goal is to get women on the fairways, those in lapsed middle age and youngsters for whom golf offers a rich accompaniment to their walk through life as well as the chance to become the next Inbee Park.
A few days in the presence of the world’s elite female golfers would cure any TV executive of the idea that women’s sport is a hard sell. The women offer the same key elements as men: technical excellence, character expressed in the ruthless manner with which they pursue victory, tradition, and narrative. St Andrews, host to the Ricoh British Women’s Open, was awash with compelling tales last week, not least Park’s mesmeric charge across the major landscape.
That she was ultimately blown off course by 40mph winds whipping off the Eden estuary constituted personal disappointment but that is a central part of sport, too. At this level it is not supposed to be easy. Failure can be dramatic. Ask Rory McIlroy, who encountered epic torment at the Masters in 2011, squandering a four-stroke lead on the final day, only to bounce back to claim his first major at the US Open two months later. Three major titles on the spin is no failure, and Park’s stumble is next year’s Grand Slam opportunity for would-be history-makers.
The mistake often made in evaluating the measure of women’s sport is to compare the participants to men. Of course, women cannot hit a golf ball as far, cannot run the 100 metres as fast, swim through the water as quickly, jump as high, tackle as hard, etc. But, since they are not competing against men, that is an irrelevance. In the example of golf there is a handicapping instrument to equalise the ground, and the capacity to alter the length of holes through staggered tees.
Take the tee shot out of the equation, and women are in the game anyway. From 150 yards out the female in golf is as deadly as the male, even more lethal, perhaps, when the putter is in Park’s hands. But again, that is not the issue. Women do not want to be ranked or compared to men. The demand is to be considered in their own right, on their own terms.
From a British perspective at least one of the biggest storylines at last year’s Olympics was created by a woman. Indeed, Jessica Ennis-Hill was the poster girl of the Games. She did not beat one man. She was not competing against men, yet her story drove the global sporting agenda on that wild Saturday night in the Olympic Stadium, turning Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford into temporary bridesmaids.
The Olympic platform is one where women do not have to grapple for exposure in the same way. The four major tennis events offer another. The meshing of male and female competition on one stage compels the neutral eye to take notice of the sporting product. The result is the fostering of familiarity. We learn about the characters, fall for some, dismiss others. Through this filter we distil our likes and dislikes, we pick our winners, we emotionally engage. Before you know it we are hooked and on first name terms with the Jessicas in athletics, the Marias and Serenas and yes, Mr Inverdale, even the Marions in tennis, the Victorias on bikes, the Rebeccas in water, and so on.
Visibility is the key. Through the myriad media platforms the magnificence and glory of female competition was set before us, and consumed with the same passion we devote to men. Though Park wasn’t on it, the leader board at St Andrews pulsed with meaning. Morgan Pressel led into the final round seeking to end her injury nightmares with a major victory that would also guarantee a place on the American team at next week’s ripping yarn, the Solheim Cup.
Chasing her was the world No 2 Stacey Lewis and British lioness Catriona Matthew, who was edged by Park in a play-off in June for the season’s second major, the LPGA Championship. Lewis and Matthew will be at each other’s throats in Denver when the Solheim Cup provides its own vivid demonstration of the essential watchability of elite sport contested by women. Critically, it will be broadcast into our homes, as was the action from St Andrews yesterday. Go on, tell me who won.
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