Scandal surrounds the victory of our national team in the women's cricket world cup. The scandal, apparently, is that there was no terrestrial television coverage of their great triumph – or so the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, argued in these pages yesterday. Mr Burnham fulminated, further, that "the absence of celebratory voices reinforced a point I have been making since [the] Beijing [Olympics]: that coverage of women's sport is woefully absent from our television screens, radios and newspapers. I feel more strongly than ever that this needs to change – urgently".
As far as I am aware, Andy Burnham is typical of New Labour in being obsessed with football, in a way that almost blots out all other sports. If it were otherwise, it would surely have occurred to him that the BBC has long ago given up televising cricket altogether; if that doesn't bother him and his colleagues, why on earth should they be putting pressure on the Corporation to show England's women cricketers?
At the risk of creating the impression that I lead an empty and idle life, I admit that I did watch Sky's highlights of the England women's victory over New Zealand. I soon realised why the vast North Sydney Oval was almost deserted. The standard seemed little higher than that of a good club cricket game, of the sort which is played in villages up and down the country every weekend in summer; but no one except for friends and families would actually think of going along to watch such matches – let alone pay to get through a turnstile.
The one thing clearly lacking was pace on the ball – the very element which thrills and makes the hairs on the back of our neck rise when we witness it, and which causes our tongues to cleave to the roof of the mouth when we actually experience it on the field. I'm sure that the England women's so-called "fast" bowlers would have been much too good for me, in the days when I played club cricket – but they occupy a different universe from the leading male equivalents.
In a charity game I once found myself facing the West Indian fast bowler, Courtney Walsh, in his fearsome prime. I have never been so frightened, not even by a visit to the dentist (which can amount to much the same thing, only the dentist will give you anaesthetic before removing your teeth). My mistake was to have dismissed Courtney when he was batting – and now he was going to show me what a real fast bowler could do.
Three times he hurtled in; three times I never saw the ball – only hearing its percussive thump a fraction of a second later as it struck the wicketkeeper's gloves about 20 yards behind me. On the fourth occasion the ball burst through the keeper's grip, and as I was called for a scampered bye, I became aware of my shirt clinging coldly to my back, drenched in the sweat of sheer terror.
It's no criticism of women to point out that they are physically incapable of propelling a cricket ball at 90 mph, or that if a woman tried to apply as much torsion though the shoulder as Shane Warne did with his leg-breaks, it would probably be her arm, rather than the ball, which would be spinning through the air towards the batsman. Neither is it the case that they are not really playing cricket (indeed, given that the England women's cricket team are all amateurs, they are in many ways closer to an old ideal of the game). It's just that they are, in every sense, in a different league.
It's true that we can all get extremely excited about any form of well-matched sporting competition – especially when national pride is involved. So if a British woman becomes an Olympic champion at something – swimming, for example – it captures our imaginations. We like the fact that one of our own has beaten all the rest, and, even if we had never known of her existence before the event began, we end up vicariously sharing in her joy at victory.
The same, obviously, applies to a male champion; but with the truly exceptional man – such as the sprinter Usain Bolt – there is something extra, a kind of gasping astonishment on our part that such strength and power could be encompassed by a human being at all. This, perhaps, is why the whole world seemed to be in thrall to that extraordinary Jamaican, and not just his own homeland: such athleticism easily transcends mere parochialism and national rivalries. By contrast, I hardly think that Mr Andy Burnham would have been jumping up and down with excitement if it had been the New Zealand team that had carried off the women's cricket World Cup.
We are sometimes told that we should support women's sport because to do so is more "inclusive"; the same argument is used to advocate television coverage of sport for the disabled. This is a fine cause: sport is good for people regardless of how many x or y chromosomes they possess, and especially good for the disabled, whose general state of health may otherwise be a particular concern.
Yet since women's sport and sport for the disabled is kept separate from able-bodied men in all forms of competition, there is a sense in which it is the complete opposite of "inclusive". Even chess – where you might think there would be no biological reason for separation – is divided up into a women's world championship and a man's championship. It was with the greatest difficulty that the world's strongest woman chess player, the Hungarian Judit Polgar, was able to persuade the sport's authorities that she should compete only against the men, rather than other women. Yet none of her fellow women players have followed her example, presumably judging that they have a better chance of becoming a "world champion" if they limit the competition to members of their own sex.
I realise that it is not advisable to suggest that that there is anything inferior about sport events which are only open to women or the disabled: President Obama has been forced to grovel after telling the chatshow host Jay Leno that his lamentable tenpin bowling skills were like "something from the Special Olympics".
There is a particular sensitivity here that English readers might miss. The Special Olympics – nothing to do with the bloated Olympiad movement – were set up over 40 years ago by Eunice Shriver, the oldest surviving sibling of President John F Kennedy, driven by her love for their disabled sister, Rosemary. For a Democrat President to be seen to mock the idea, therefore, was more than merely politically incorrect.
Outside the Democrat family, Obama has been criticised by the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, whose young son has Down syndrome. Governor Palin protested that "this was a degrading remark about our world's most precious and unique people, coming from the most powerful position in the world".
Come off it, Mrs P. I too have a child with Down syndrome, and was thrilled that she took part in the school sports day; she came last, by a very long way, but I was touched beyond words by the cheers of all those watching, as she finally crossed the line. I don't, however, think that the BBC should have been required to televise it.
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