Can women build on London 2012 glory?

The Olympics put the nation's female sports stars in the spotlight but can they stay there? Robin Scott-Elliot speaks to the captains of England's football, rugby union and cricket teams about the challenges ahead

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The Independent Online

It is three months since the Olympics, when 70,000 people turned up at Wembley to watch Team GB's women footballers, and in which across the board women played a central role in Britain's success. How important was the London Games for women's sport in this country?

Casey Stoney (Team GB football captain) There is no comparison. The Olympics was absolutely crazy, to walk out at Wembley in front of 70,000, to out-sell the men in terms of tickets was massive. I feel like we've always been on the outskirts of things as females in sport and to be part of it – really part of it – was incredible. I have been into schools since where the after-school uptakes for sport – not just football, across sport – have doubled or trebled. It's keeping that momentum. Once every four years is not enough.

Do you worry it could prove to be the pinnacle?

CS Absolutely. That is the risk. If we [Team GB football] don't go to Rio that's even more of a risk. We didn't do anything different [for London] – all we had is a platform that we've never had before. Rugby is in the next [Olympics], they are going to have a platform they have never had before – 3.9m people chose to put BBC3 on and watch [our game against Brazil].

Katy McLean (England's rugby captain) It's a change, isn't it? Those 70,000 people made a conscious decision to go and buy a ticket. That's where women's sport is going. Would that have happened four years ago? It's constantly building on that message with support from governing bodies, support from government, support from media and also making sure we play well to sell that message.

CS I go into schools and the difference since the Olympics is the boys want to come up and talk to me – boys want my autograph and that never happened before. There is a massive change in perceptions, which is important. I have heard ex-players – men – saying they didn't respect the women's game before but they have completely changed their mind on the back of the Olympics.

So seeing is believing?

Charlotte Edwards (England cricket captain) Yes – we have guys commentating on our game [on Sky] and we have changed their whole perception. It has made a huge, huge difference.

KM It's about the more people who can see our sports. These sports have moved on – we are top-class female athletes. Perceptions are changing – we have to keep pushing that message so it gets to young girls in schools.

It's about schools isn't it? That 12-14 age is crucial for girls, when participation levels are dangerously low, nine out of 10 girls are not getting enough exercise. Why do girls in particular not stay in sport?

CS There are not enough female role models. That is the key and the media have to take a lot of responsibility for that – who they put up as female role models.

Jessica Ennis is a fine example of a female role model but you can't only concentrate on athletics. There is probably a small percentage of people who would know who we are. Yes, not every girl is going to play football or rugby or cricket but if you have those role models out there then they can aspire to them and then fewer girls will drop out [of sport] when they are 12 or 13 years old.

KM It is role models – I agree. There needs to be a push of women's sport into the media. But also pushing girls into their element – too often it's not seen as cool.

CS You have to be a really strong personality. I would have given up many times – I got bullied at school for playing football. You get called names because you are not in the "norm". It needs to become the norm. There are still barriers.

Is a lack of coverage in the media a barrier, not holding up those role models to a wider audience?

KM We're about to play the All Blacks, you guys have got the [cricket] World Cup, the Euros – they are major female tournaments and if we get better coverage of those then that spreads a bigger message. It's constantly having month-by-month coverage of women's sport.

CS I can't speak highly enough of the media during the Olympics – we got fantastic coverage. But that's once every four years – if we don't go to Rio it's once in who knows how long.

CE When the men went out of the [Twenty20] World Cup in Sri Lanka the British media were out there and then the focus was on us. You want that ongoing – we wouldn't expect it for every single series but it's all fits and starts, our coverage at the moment. We need a bit more consistency.

KM You look at the Olympics and at how many girls did so well and hopefully it will kick on. That comes down to us as well – we have to take responsibility that the sport we play has a high standard. The coverage is getting better – it's not where we want it to be but that's not going to happen, you have to be realistic.

CE You have got to be successful. That's the pressure on the players because no one is interested if you come in fifth, sixth in international tournaments. They want success.

CS We have to take that responsibility. If we had turned up against Brazil and played awful… it's kind of make or break sometimes those sorts of games. We want to win those big tournaments and then it gives little girls something to dream about. There is a market out there for women's sport – absolutely. It is there if it is given the right platform.

How big a breakthrough would it be for the football team to win the Euros next year?

CS It depends on the coverage. If we win it and nobody watches it it's not going to make any difference. If you get one line in the back of a paper – which is what we did when we played Germany in the final [four years ago] – then that is not going to change anything. People seeing it, picking it up and reading about it – if you get that it could be a huge breakthrough. Ultimately this nation is craving success at football – it's not had it for 50 years.

What about funding? Much was made of the women cricketers flying economy to the World Twenty20 while the men went at the front of the plane.

CE We didn't really care. We would rather have a longer tour and play more games than have money spent on flights – we're not precious.

Personally, is playing sport at your level – as leading England internationals, England captains – a struggle financially?

CS I've always found it a struggle. It's only now at the age of 30 where I'm not constantly using an overdraft. It's always been hard – a lot of our girls have to sacrifice careers.

CE It's been a massive difference for us in the last five years with the contracts we're on and now the ECB are paying us for our tours. Now there is a career being an England women's cricketer.

CS We still have to work – one of our girls works in an old people's home. But most girls are in it for the love – if you said tomorrow the money goes then most would still be in it.

Football: Casey Stoney

The 30-year-old defender succeeded Faye White as England captain this year. Captained Team GB at the Olympics – including a 1-0 victory over Brazil – as the team reached the quarter-finals. Made her England debut in 2000 and has 105 caps – will lead England in the Euro 2013 finals next summer. Plays for Lincoln Ladies in the Women's Super League.

Rugby Union: Katy Mclean

Not only England's captain but also playmaker at No 10 and goal-kicker. The 26-year-old has 311 points from 55 caps. Based in the north-east, where she is a primary school teacher, McLean plays for Darlington Mowden Park Sharks. This year she led England to a sixth Grand Slam in seven years and last year captained them to back-to-back victories over the All Blacks, the world champions.

Cricket: Charlotte Edwards

The 32-year-old opening bat has been playing for 16 years. Has played 19 Tests – England now only play Tests against Australia – 160 one-day internationals and 61 Twenty20 internationals. England captain since 2006, in 2009 she led England to the World Cup in Australia, a trophy they will defend in India next year.