Leading article: Let's seize the chance to tackle sexism in sport

Britain has some world class female athletes, but men get more support and more glory

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lizzie Armitstead deserves another medal. Flushed with the triumph of winning silver in Sunday's 87-mile road race, the champion cyclist took the opportunity to take a public stand against the sexism in sport. The pressures, she said, are "disheartening". Disheartening, indeed; and wholly indefensible.

Ms Armitstead's criticisms are not the only intrusion of ugly gender prejudice into the all-inclusive fantasy of the London Olympics. A top (female) canoeist will be at the High Court on Thursday, challenging the absence of women's canoeing from the Games, despite five men's events. Eyebrows have also been raised over travel arrangements which have seen mediocre male teams (specifically Japanese footballers and Australian basketball players) stretching their legs in business class while their world-beating female counterparts make do with coach.

There is, of course, no possible justification for such discrimination. But perhaps it should not be so surprising. After all, women's sports consistently command just a fraction of the attention, the sponsorship, or the glory of their male equivalents. And Ms Armitstead is right: Britain is an egregious offender. We have some truly top-class female athletes: world champion swimmers, triathletes and cyclists, and an rugby team that has won the Six Nations title for the past seven years running. But it is less successful men who hog the money and the acclaim. While female champions go unrecognised, Andy Murray, say – who, for all his progress, has never won a Grand Slam – is a national hero (and a sponsor's dream).

The statistics are startling. When it comes to sponsorship, the top women's sports secure only a fraction of 1 per cent of the total market. Men's sports, on the other hand, rake in more than 60 per cent (with the balance going to mixed sports). The media, alas, must share the blame. Last year's Women's World Cup final might have been the most tweeted event in history. Polling by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation might indicate significant public appetite for following women's sport. But a bare 1 per cent of newspaper sports coverage, and even less broadcast time, is allocated to it.

More troubling still is the damaging attitude that so often prevails in those rare moments when female sports stars do grab a share of the limelight. Gail Emms, the now-retired Olympic silver badminton player, recently spoke out about the pressure from sponsors to "wear fake tan and a tight kit". And the barrage of salacious comments that has accompanied the (women's) beach volleyball at this year's Games – not least from the Mayor of London – is a discouraging reminder of the extent to which women's sports struggle to be accepted on their own terms.

In the face of such obstacles, is it any wonder that the number of girls playing sport is so woefully low? Only around one in 10 female 14-year-olds take the exercise they should, while nearly half believe that playing sport is unfeminine. Such warped views are, of themselves, deeply concerning. That elite women's sports are routinely either ignored or reduced to titillation only exacerbates the problem.

London 2012 has been billed as the most inclusive Games ever. Great fanfare has, not unjustifiably, been given to the fact that women are competing in all 205 teams for the first time ever. Team GB is also a model of equality, with women not only making up half the membership but expected to win more medals than their male colleagues.

There is progress, then. But a balance of numbers alone is not enough. The best possible legacy of London 2012, well worth the £9bn price tag, would be real change in the attitude to women in sport. Lizzie Armitstead, and those who follow her example, deserve nothing less.