“When You Get to the End of Your Rope, Tie a Knot and Hang On”

medalThe shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was released today, and such are the successes among British sporting stars that poor old Mo Farah, despite having achieved the legendary ‘double/double’ (winning the 5,000m and 10,000m at both the Olympics and World Athletics Championships), is still not favourite to take home the accolade.

After becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, Andy Murray is expected to secure the top prize. Others on the list include Tour de France winner Chris Froome; Sir Ben Ainsley, credited with masterminding Oracle Team USA’s America’s Cup win; and Justin Rose, whose triumph at the US Open made him the first Englishman to win a golf major since 1996.

Astonishingly no footballers on the list, despite the fact that, given its extensive coverage in the daily newspapers, you’d be forgiven for thinking football was the only sport played in this country. Not even [Most Expensive] Footballer of the Year, Gareth Bale, made the cut. And Mark Cavendish has now won the points classification at all three major cycling tours following his success in the Giro d’Italia this year, but didn’t make the Beeb’s top ten.

Basically, this year is a long way from 1997 when Greg Rusedski got to take home the awkwardly shaped statue. His triumph came on the back of getting to the final (for the first and last time in his career) of the US Open. Not to demean Greg’s efforts in any way – lord knows I could never get to the top end of a ladder, let alone the top end of a tennis grand slam – but Andy couldn’t even win it last year after having reached five major finals, won the US Open, and beaten Federer to Olympic gold. Stakes are somewhat higher now.

There is female presence on the list in Christine Ohuruogu and Hannah Cockroft; the BBC wouldn’t be so daft as to submit itself to the uproar of 2011, a year in which apparently there was no female achievement worthy of note. The events of London 2o12 made it easy to draw up a shortlist that was an even split of male/female success.

A year later, is it truly the case that only two women’s performances are worth mentioning? Even with the increased competition for a spot on the shortlist, I don’t believe that for a minute. I also don’t think the blame for the frequent under-representation of women on the SPOTY list lies (solely) with the BBC. The real issue is a combination of lack of coverage and lack of opportunity for women in sport.

British Tour de France winners are like buses. You wait nearly a hundred years, and two come along in succession. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are incredibly talented and driven, and rewarded with success in cycling’s biggest challenge. And they managed it without any “extra” help, if you get my drift. They deserve the attention and the plaudits directed their way, and I’m sure their wins have done wonders for young cyclists around the country. But what of their female equivalents? There are none, because even in the 21st century women are still not permitted to compete in the Tour de France.

It creates a vicious cycle (no pun intended): there are relatively fewer races for women to compete, therefore a significant lack of bikecoverage, and thus a dearth of sponsorship, making it a real struggle for women’s cycling to grow. Laura Trott defended her omnium title at the Track Cycling World Cup and was part of the winning women’s pursuit team, but for all her efforts, even the golden girl of last summer struggled to make the front of any sports pages.

I would not suggest for one minute that female athletes should be included on the list simply because they are women. That is a case of political-correctness gone mad. However, I do feel that more female achievements should be pointed out. The SPOTY event is a glitzy affair that draws a large number of sporting names, is televised, and receives significant coverage in the press. It offers a perfect opportunity to draw attention to the successes of women that have otherwise slipped under the radar.

In an ideal world, one night on the BBC would be enough to redress the balance and propel minority sports and participants into the headlines rather than a byline on a final page roundup. But in reality, there are multiple obstacles that must be overcome to achieve gender equality in sport.

The first of these is the sports governing bodies. To again use the lack of a women’s Tour as my example, this was initially prohibited because one of the purposes of the Tour de France was to celebrate masculinity. Women who wanted to ride were treated with suspicion. This may not be the case anymore, but the current rules still seem to suggest that women are simply not up to the rigours of long-course road racing. It still stands that women can only race a maximum of eight days and for stages of no more than 81 miles.

Women were only allowed to compete in the 10,000m at the Olympics 25 years ago, and 2012 was the first time women’s boxing discowas included on the programme. Female tennis players are still only required to go to a best of three sets, while men have to battle it out in five. The implication, always, whether intentional or not, is that women are too weak and feeble to take on the same challenges as their male counterparts. This needs to change.

So, too, does the appearance and visibility of women’s sports. La Grande Boucle FĂ©minine was billed as the Tour de France’s female equivalent, but received minimal coverage and its demise barely registered when it eventually closed up shop in 2009. If news outlets aren’t interested, neither are sponsors or organisers.

Furthermore, young girls need a wide spread of female athletes that they are inspired to emulate. There also needs to be incentive. This BBC News article quotes research that found only 30% of teenage girls exercised regularly. It’s shocking, but not surprising. The various pressures on girls around the ages of 13-16 make it difficult to continue to get enjoyment out of sport. At the moment, I don’t think there is enough to persuade them that giving up a significant amount of free time is worth their while.

Sport should not be glamourised, but female success should be offered the same opportunities as men receive. Male sporting stars become legends – Lennox Lewis, the 1966 World Cup team, Sebastian Coe, Fred Perry – whereas Virginia Wade had to suffer the indignation of some reports declaring Andy Murray “the first British winner of Wimbledon in 77 years”, thus wiping her name from the history books in one sentence.

Female athletes are too frequently targets for ridicule. Paula Radcliffe still holds the world record for the women’s marathon, and yet this is often overlooked in order to sniggeringly remember her misfortune and bladder issues during the Olympic marathon in Beijing. Victoria Pendleton, only able to ride one race in Beijing while Sir Chris Hoy came home with three golds and hero status, was finally allowed the same opportunity as the men in London, but had to put up with comments about her personal life and being branded a ‘whinger’ after her responses to certain interview questions.

Who would want to deal with all that, on top of the relentless training and diet regimes of a professional sportsperson? You get the same amount of flack for appearing on a show like The Only Way Is Essex for less than a fraction of the effort – and you probably get paid more, too.

Certain sporting events – and specifically, the women’s side of these events – need to capture the imagination; to persuade the public to remain interested for longer than one glorious summer month every four years, and thus encourage regular attendance. At the moment, I still believe it remains hard to become fully invested in a sport if it does not receive an adequate level of coverage. This is the catch-22: press will not report on something if it little interest is displayed, yet it is difficult to remain aware of an event taking place unless it is publicised in a national paper.

In fact, all the aspects I have written about are interlinked: larger audiences will attract more attention from the media; this will influence funding, which can make the difference between someone reaching their full potential and not; this has a knock-on effect as to whether the athlete can secure a sizable sponsorship deal, which also depends on the publicity surrounding the event; more charlie brownpublicity will encourage a bigger following… and so on.

Ultimately, female athletes need equal opportunities and to be taken seriously for what they do. Their inclusion on the SPOTY shortlist should not be met with confusion as to what it is they’ve been nominated for, and should not be open to the criticism that they are a ‘token’ addition. Quarter of a century ago it was believed to be dangerous for a woman to run long distances. Now that she has proved that she can run just as far as any man, the next step is to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

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