Britain's women athletes set to outperform men at Games for first time ever

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The Independent Online

Women, for the first time in British Olympic history, are expected to return from Athens bearing more medals than their male compatriots.

Women, for the first time in British Olympic history, are expected to return from Athens bearing more medals than their male compatriots.

Their brighter prospects are being attributed, at least in part, to a change of attitudes among female competitors who are increasingly attracted to the glamour of sport.

British men's best medal prospects are in sailing, while the women have several opportunities to win gold, with the distance runner Paula Radcliffe leading the field.

Sue Campbell, the head of UK Sport, said: "Sport for women is no longer just about sweat: many are finding that it is a really cool thing to do.

She said the revolution had begun in schools, where girls where choosing to participate in minority sports such as martial arts, which have been quicker to embrace equality.

Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, said: "Women can find genuine equality in minority sports. There are no barriers. Some of the big sports, like football, cricket and rugby, pay only lip service to promoting equality so now girls tend to gravitate towards sports like gymnastics, the martial arts, the modern pentathlon and equestrianism."

In response to the men's poor prospects, Ms Hoey last week launched the first independent inquiry into British sport for more than 40 years.

Swimmers Katy Sexton and Melanie Marshall, pentathletes Georgina Harland and Kate Allenby and gymnasts Beth Tweddle and Kirsten Lawton, plus at least two of the women's rowing teams, are expected to follow athletes like Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes and Kelly Sotherton on to the podium in Athens. Medals are also expected for British women in badminton, archery, judo, the modern pentathlon and tae kwondo.

Sarah Stevenson, a 21-year-old tae kwondo expert from Doncaster, is widely tipped to take gold in her event.

"People are realising that you don't necessarily have to be an aggressive person to do an aggressive sport," said Ms Stevenson, who was recently tipped for Olympic success by the movie star Jackie Chan. "It has definitely become a lot more open now: in the past it was all about men."

Another medal contender is the heptathlete Kelly Sotherton. She has secured training, equipment and a crucial sponsorship deal from Weetabix.

"Women have had enough of looking at men take all the glory," said Ms Sotherton, 27. "Women are getting more gutsy and more focused. They're looking to positive role models like Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes, and thinking 'I can do that.'"

Britain's women have been kitted out in trendy figure-hugging gear specially designed to enhance the new "Cool Britannia" image.

"We'll have the best-prepared and best-looking team in Athens," promised Team GB's chief, Simon Clegg.

Sarah Stevenson

Age: 21

Event: tae kwondo

Prospect: gold

She says: "After nine months on the sidelines, I have recaptured my focus and believe I have the experience to go for gold."

Kelly Holmes

Age: 33

Event: 800m and 1500m

Prospect: gold in 1500m

She says: "I am convinced I can make a stronger challenge for the 1500m gold medal in Athens."

Paula Radcliffe

Age: 30

Event: marathon/10,000 metres

Prospect: gold

She says: "I always believed I could run a good marathon, but just to be able to think at times that I am the best in the world is great. That, without being big-headed about it, gives me confidence. If I'm going to do something I'm going to do it properly."

Kelly Sotherton

Age: 27

Event: heptathlon

Prospect: silver/bronze

She says: "I have trained all my life to compete at the Olympics and to achieve that goal is really special."

Kate Allenby

Age: 30

Event: modern pentathlon

Prospect: gold

She says: "I'd like to make a final and everybody wants to win a medal. I want to do the best I can and then I'll get the result I want."

Gail Emms

Age: 27

Event: badminton

Prospect: silver/bronze

She says: "I'll need a bit of luck on the day but it's an opportunity and I've got to take it with both hands."