02 January, 2010

Girls In The Field

How's listening to Radio 4 going, dude? Well, pretty much the same as my relationship with any radio station actually – intrigue seeped in impotent fury. The same incomprehending rage that Danny Boyle diagnosed as the plague of the 21st Century.

This morning the Today programme was guest edited by one-time SDP rebel and now Lib Dem life peer Shirley Williams. One issue she chose to bring attention to was the relative lack of coverage of women's team sports, when compared both to men's sports in general and women's achievement in individual sports. To this end, an interview with Lynne Truss was aired.

This is a question that has always interested me, as a devoted sports fan. Once upon a time, I didn't understand why women don't play much sport and compete against men (I was told, and fully believed, men and women were equal). I wondered whether sport could provide a route for re-sculpting gender roles. I was outraged as anyone when FIFA's pig-in-chief Sepp Blatter suggested women's football should capitalise on its good-looking practitioners (“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball.”)

Latterly, however, I just wonder whether sport is my blind spot, a vice as unforgivable as that of the life-long labour-voting professional with a fondness for first nights. The widely-gawped-at case of Caster Semenya over the summer went some way to cementing my feelings that I can never satisfactorily sync my fanatical love for sport with any leftward-leaning values I try to uphold. Anyway, I'm interested. I have produced some disorganised rambling. You can listen to the interview again here. If you prefer to read, and for long-term reference, I have hastily transcribed most of what was said. All emphasis and grammatical errors are mine:


LT: I think at the deepest level, it's to do with why people play sports at all. And clearly team sports were originally designed for men to sort of sublimate other urges... sexual urges, aggression and violence and so on are all sublimated and channelled through the sport. And that makes it kind of interesting to watch.

When women play sport there's a very strange thing that happens which is that they appear to be enjoying it. I think that women play sport in a very pure kind of way, they play it in a non-sexualised way. It's nothing to do with sex, it's all almost anti-sex and it is actually them celebrating physicality... and for some reason, when things are sort of agony, they're much more interesting to watch, when they're joy you think they can get on with it and no-one need watch.

Q: When you look at team sport, [women in tennis and other individual sports have broken through and enjoyed success] it's in team sports where we don't take as much notice of them as we should, you're saying there is something about watching women play a team sport that is sort of fundamentally less interesting?

LT: Yes, I think so. You have to account for it. Why is it? I mean clearly what happens in any football match if it's played by men, played by women, will be roughly the same, won't it? You have the same incidents, the same drama and so there must be something underlying it. I wonder if, obviously the media and particularly the sports media have been traditionally run by me, whether they do find somehow that it's sort of a turn-off about women playing sport. When women play sport, team sports particularly, I think there is something they feel excluded from rather than attracted to. Whereas when men play team sports obviously men want to watch, and women want to watch. So there is something basically unfair going on there.

Q: So... no matter how good women get at team sports – and British women have done rather well recentlyy, if you look at the England women's rugby team, probably better than the men – there's no hope for them, because however good they get, we still won't be interested, you say?

LT: No, I think we have to overcome this! It's not something we should accept. I do think that we should overcome it and we certainly shouldn't tell women not to play team sports when they're obviously so good at them. But certainly the lead needs to be taken by the media doesn't it? And I'm surprised actually these days with sport being so expensive to cover on television, why not go into more diverse sports and televise women's sports until people get used to the idea? But I just think there's a sort of gut reaction to women playing sport that should of course be challenged and civilised. I think that's underlying the problem.

Q: But the people to do the challenging and the civilising will presumably be women and it's still a pretty male-dominated industry isn't it, the sport-watching industry as it were, writers and broadcasters.

LT: Yes, it is, it really is. And the thing I find really troubling is when sports commentators, sports editors do put women onto sports pages, it will be the “tennis babes.” They will say “it's perfectly OK to find women tennis players attractive.” I remember during the women's football world cup the American woman who scored a goal took her top off to celebrate – and of course it was on the back pages – and the front pages! Everyone thought “oh goody, at last something for us!” There clearly is sort of a misogyny in the whole business that runs so deep that people aren't aware it's there.


Maybe it's a bit shooting fish in a barrel, but Truss is correct about sport – it goes a lot deeper than simply the actions of the individuals on field. I've felt that myself, at my low, low level of football. It gets more compelling the more is at stake. Hence the hype that prompted this Mitchell & Webb sketch. Sport is organised war, it's bucks crossing antlers. It is fun, and some weeks I have simply lived for football nights, but it's not pure fun.

Honestly, I don't have a clue about the way women approach team sports, but I would be a little surprised if the very best athletes weren't gritty competitors in precisely the same vein as men. I would expect them to be somewhat rarer, but not that much at the top levels. I have time for the suggestion that men are threatened by women's sports, because women's groups on the whole are threatening to men. But I don't think that is the root of the problem.

The most recent Women's World Cup was hosted in China in 2007. I was sharing a house with three women and a vehemently un-sporty bloke, and yet he would join me when I inevitably gravitated towards the highlights. And even he felt the quality was, um, a little lacking. It's not a fair representation to say the same incidents take place in the two versions of the game, any more than it is to say a Radiohead album contains the same chords as one by Coldplay. There's no doubt that serious athletes far faster, stronger and fitter than myself or any slovenly reader of this tripe play the women's game, but there's no serious argument that it challenges the men's.

I've come to see this as a problem of categorisation. Men's sport is not explicitly sport for mature individuals who have a Y chromosome. Men's football is an open competition, and to paraphrase the common saying, if you're good enough you're man enough (Of course, for the same sorts of reason that homosexuals are displaced from public participation in team sports, this is not the case. A woman could have the skill of Maradona and she'd be unlikely to make it through). Women's and disabled sport are related in that they are protected zones from which other athletes must be excluded to maintain the level of competition.

Luring spectators to a women's version of the game is not the same as asking a football fan to watch rugby or cricket, because sport is elitism if it is anything. In fairness, I don't think the casual misogyny of sport is all that hard to detect, but I guess Truss puts it diplomatically at the end there.

The problematic representation of female sportspeople in the media, the limited viable roles through which they are allowed to enter into the public eye, these are not problems unique to sport, but maybe this is their most extreme manifestation. I'm always appalled during the Wimbledon fortnight when tennis commentators get away with complimenting the female players, flouting the BBC's vaunted political correctness in the most egregious way.

This is a really worthy cause, but I'm worried that it's also a forlorn hope. For medical reasons alone, it would be tremendous to get sports participation in Britain on the rise, and beyond that lies opportunities for community cohesion, senses of achievement, and so on. Certainly though, I can't see women's team sports being given the same credibility as those of men anytime soon. I don't expect to see it within my lifetime. For that to come about would require a complete alteration of our modes of thought, and it would probably change the nature of sport itself.

And I still don't know how to feel about Korfball.

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