Women have means to an end

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The Independent Online
SEX has reared its head in the unlikeliest of sporting contexts. For sex, or, to be more specific and less sensational, gender, is at the heart of a well-mannered, but none the less passionate, controversy at the Churchill Insurance World Indoor Bowls Championship in Preston.

The nature of the trouble is quite straightforward. Until this year the championship has been the sole preserve of men. But for 1995 the organisers invited two women players, Janette Woodley, of Scotland, and Margaret Johnston, from Northern Ireland, to take part. Inevitably, their inclusion means the exclusion of two male players.

The men are not best pleased. Richard Corsie, the No 2 seed at the tournament, vented his spleen on Radio 4's Today programme, and Ian Schuback, of Australia, the 1992 champion, who was to be Johnston's opponent in the first round, made it politely clear that there were a good few male players more worthy of facing him on the rink than his scheduled foe.

Women players, and no doubt a great many women fans, were delighted by the innovation. Johnston, in her column in the current issue of Bowls International magazine, said why she thought the men were so up-in-arms about it all: "They know it is only a matter of time", she wrote, "before a woman is going to win a major mixed event; then they know they will have no grounds for complaining." She also revealed that her plans for the Schuback match included positioning half a dozen mini-skirted blondes in the first row of the audience to distract him.

We talked to Schuback shortly before the historic encounter at Preston Guild Hall on Friday afternoon. A trim, blond, bronzed bloke in his early forties, he looked a bit like Shane Warne's wicked uncle. He was pragmatic about the gender question. "If the sponsors want it," he drawled, "it'll happen. Half the people out there watching are women, after all."

And his thoughts, more specifically, on that afternoon's match? "If I get beaten, well, Jeez, I've been beaten by worse players than Margaret Johnston before now. But in their wildest dreams the women are thinking about winning one match. The top 10 players here [Schuback was seeded 10] are thinking about winning five matches, and the championship."

Ladbrokes seemed to have picked up the general view that Johnston didn't have much of a chance: they priced her at 9-2 to win the match. Schuback was 1-8. Suckers for sentiment (and greedy beyond belief), we stuck a fiver on her anyway.

The historic moment, shortly after 3pm, when Margaret Johnston became the first woman to bowl in the world championship, was greeted with demure applause by the 100 or so mainly elderly fans who were gathered at rinkside in the Guild Hall. Indeed, it would be true to say that one or two of them barely looked up from their knitting.

The contest took a while to come to life. Johnston, in smart dark blue shirt and regulation-length skirt, dropped the first set 7-2 and the second 7-5. There was no sign of her miniskirted blondes.

In the third set, though, she rallied, and a sequence of fine play that saw her twice deny Schuback scores by skilfully driving the jack off the rink seemed to give her confidence.

The fourth set was a nail-biter. The players were tied at 6-6, at which point Schuback needed one shot to win the match, Johnston one shot to send it into a fifth set. The end - in both senses - was extraordinary. Johnston bowled beautifully to hold three shots - more than enough - then sent her last ball gently close to the jack, rather than position it to block Schuback's final bowl. He snapped up the invitation, and carried the jack to win the match.

After the match, the Australian was scathing of his opponent's tactics, but bowed to the sponsor's greater wisdom over the matter of admitting women players to the tournament. Johnston was both elated and disappointed at the same time. A confident, composed lady, as befits a nursing auxiliary who lists knitting as a hobby, she said she expected to see at least four women in next year's world championship finals. "Oh well," she sighed at last. "At least I had him worried." There are more worries ahead for male bowlers.

MAX MOSLEY, worldwide boss of motor racing, has put in an early bid for Sporting Cynic of the Year. Explaining the rise in his sport's viewing figures last year to some journalists, he alluded to the antics of a French footballer, and the pit lane fire which nearly fried Jos Verstappen last year. "You can have the most brilliant race ever", he said, "and it's worth 10 minutes in the pub. But if Cantona kicks a spectator or someone is set alight, then that's really it."

A MORE appropriate response to sporting violence came from Jonathan Pearce, the Capital Radio commentator for the Republic of Ireland v England at Lansdowne Road. Attempting to describe the horrifying scenes to his listeners, he burst into tears.