The resignation of Helena Costa shows that in sport, as in politics, the bar is set twice as high for women

Women are scrutinised to the point of exhaustion and set up to fail
  • @janemerrick23

What caused Helena Costa to quit her role as the highest-profile female manager of a men’s team in European football? According to the  36-year-old herself, a number of factors were to blame – including the management of the club.

But Claude Michy, president of the Clermont Foot side Costa managed for just one day, had his own reason to offer: “She goes with her secret. She’s a woman. They are capable of making us believe a certain number of things.”

Yes, that’s right. We women are as mysterious as the Sphinx, Mona Lisa and the contents of the Queen’s handbag rolled into one. Our decisions are not based on rational thought but on a sort of flibbertigibbetness that means we cannot focus on the job in hand for long periods of time, that we say one thing when we mean another, or that we say anything, basically... oh hang on, where was I?

Costa, in fact, gave quite a detailed explanation of her decision to leave before she had even watched her players kick a ball in training. She says that there was a “total lack of respect” and “amateurism” from the club, which included the sporting director wanting to sign players without her agreement and a failure to respond to her emails. Costa’s decision seems to be rather clever, in that case, because she could no doubt see which way the wind was blowing: an attempt to undermine her, go behind her back and, if the team performed poorly, blame her for the failure.

When Costa’s appointment was announced last month, she was hailed as a pioneer. But just as individual female achievements are held up as special cases and great steps for womankind, those same women are scrutinised to the point of exhaustion, set up to fail. The sound of a woman’s downfall is always louder than a man’s. In sport, like in politics – those two male realms – it is deafening.

Karren Brady, who knows a bit about being female in sport, and, after her appointment as the Prime Minister’s business adviser, now in politics, says that women have to be twice as good as their male rivals to be thought of only half as well. In politics, when a woman resigns,  we pore over every detail and question whether she was up to the job. So it goes in sport, particularly when women are “in charge” of men.

Amelie Mauresmo won Wimbledon yet when she was appointed as Andy Murray’s coach last month, there was a collective scratching of heads. Some asked how a woman could coach Murray when the men’s game is completely different to the one that she knows? Murray himself had to draw a line under the initial mutterings about Mauresmo’s fitness for the job, saying that only he would be to blame if he failed to win Wimbledon a second time.

Unlike the England football team, it is now possible to watch Murray playing tennis without a lurching sense of dread. The Scotsman plays like a champion. Yet if Murray doesn’t triumph this year, as is entirely possible, you can bet that there will be some commentators who jump straight to the conclusion that Mauresmo is to blame – not being quite up to the standards of Ivan Lendl, Murray’s previous coach.

Tennis, more than most sports, has a thing about fetishising women players. The Romanian Simona Halep reached her first Grand Slam final earlier this month, eventually defeated by Maria Sharapova (no stranger to having her body scrutinised) in the French Open. Halep’s achievement in getting to the final was helped, it was said, by the fact that she could play better after having a breast reduction from size 34DD to a 34C. Yet the operation was five years ago and her friend Laura Robson, who you would think is more expert in tennis than those who wrote about Halep’s breasts, says her “more streamlined shape”, as one tawdry newspaper put it, is totally irrelevant to how she’s playing.

Last year, John Inverdale claimed that he couldn’t help saying Marion Bartoli, hours before she won Wimbledon, was “never going to be a looker” – it just came out. But when things just slip out like that, it says a lot about the looks-obsessed culture that tennis has become. And when it comes to success on the field, the bar is still set so much higher for women. If only, we ask again and again, it could just be about the sport.


Nothing untoward about naked frolics

On a scorching hot day recently, my daughter and I found ourselves stuck in central London for two hours. As we hunted for somewhere to cool down, we came across one of those public fountain squares where jets of water erupt out of the ground.

My daughter, nearly four, ran straight into the water. She took all of her clothes off, bar her pants, and spent the next two hours screeching with glee at the fun of it. There is nothing that speaks of unbridled, carefree childhood as running, half naked, through a fountain.

Yet as I took photos of her, I noticed some people looking on disapprovingly – perhaps at her having hardly any clothes on, or perhaps because I was taking pictures. It is as if the sight of a naked child is baby.jpgoffensive. This crazy hang-up has clearly infected the people at Instagram, who took down a mother’s picture of her toddler daughter showing off her naked tummy and “outie” belly button.

When Courtney Adamo, who writes a blog about her children, tried to post the picture of her daughter Marlow again, Instagram blocked her account. As Adamo says, “to entertain the idea that it is even remotely inappropriate is a disgusting thing in itself”.

Let’s forgive this flight of fancy

Do as I say, not as I do. I feel a twinge of sympathy for Greenpeace’s international programme director, Pascal Husting, who, it emerged this week, has been commuting 250 miles by plane from Luxembourg to Amsterdam, despite his charity’s fierce campaigning on the damage done to the environment by aviation.

The executive director of Greenpeace UK defended his colleague, and the charity, by saying that the flights were taken so that Husting could see more of his young children. But now Greenpeace has announced that, in future, their employee will take the train instead.

In an age when every minute of every day is taken up trying to negotiate the work-life balance assault course, it is understandable that many of us turn into corner-cutting hypocrites.

Surely the answer for Husting is that he do more of his work on the long train-journeys – modern technology means we don’t have to be slaves to presenteeism. That way he can see his family as much as he is now – and still help to save the planet.

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