Objects of attention: The double standard for women in sport

The news from Roland Garros in Paris appeared to be focused on Serena Williams’ outfit. After the unnecessary debacle of last year’s black bodysuit, the American is now donning a kit designed by Virgil Abloh and Nike, which is printed with the words: mother, champion, queen and goddess in French. I don’t begrudge this incredible sportswoman any positive publicity, or the chance to promote her fashion line, but I still find it odd that the subject would headline above the match results of the day.

You would hope that in 2019 there would be something more interesting than clothes to discuss from events in the women’s draw of the French Open tennis tournament. One could hope, but no one should be surprised.

The world of female sport is still unfortunately clouded by far too much body shaming, frivolous conversation about clothing, and the championing of attractive players by corporate sponsors. If we stick with tennis for this part of the conversation, there is a great example in the endorsement machine that is Maria Sharapova.

Listen, I don’t really want to detract for a moment from the Russian’s supreme achievement of winning five grand slams (although I am just about to ...) or her extensive charity work with children and Chernobyl-related projects. But it does beg the question why a sportsperson with an association with drug cheating, a lack of devotion from fans, and a reputation for being rather unpleasant, has been one of the highest earners in women’s tennis for many years. Sorry gentleman sponsors, but what exactly is it that you keep finding attractive about the gorgeous blonde lady holding the racket?

It isn’t that Sharapova didn’t become one of the sports really good players, it’s just that her extensive sponsorship by companies like Porsche and Tag Heuer never really matched her standing within tennis. Something similar can be said about Anna Kournikova, a beautiful female tennis star who reached number 8 in the world’s rankings in the year 2000. Kournikova was constantly in the press throughout the 1990’s and the following decade, which always struck me as a remarkable situation for a player who never managed to win any singles title on the senior tour. Sorry gentleman of the media, but what exactly was it that you kept finding so interesting about the gorgeous blonde lady holding the racket?

It is frustrating that, despite previous faux pas and idiotic errors made by commentators and the media in past years, the public is still being fed triviality instead of real news about women’s tennis.

During the 2013 Wimbledon fortnight, it was with utter incredulity that I listened to John Inverdale, one of my all time favourite broadcasters, state that France’s Marion Bartoli was "never going to be a looker". The idiotic remarks were made whilst Inverdale was commentating for a BBC radio station, after the awesome Bartoli won the women’s final on the famous centre court in London.

"I just wonder if her dad did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14: Listen, you're never going to be a looker” the charming Inverdale pondered, “you are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you're never going to be 5ft 11, you're never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.'"

The BBC were forced to apologise for the comments and it was with pride, and a great big sigh, that I heard Marion Bartoli respond afterwards that she would not let his opinions spoil the greatest day of her life.

What the hell was Inverdale thinking? Has he been so spell bound by Sharapova’s legs over the years that he was unable to see past them to note what a great thing Bartoli had achieved? Why had he felt it necessary to demean an athlete at the pinnacle of her career? And rather than talk about how she had made her way to win arguably the most valued crown in women’s tennis, he preferred to consider her looks, her shape and her legs.

Inverdale later blamed his appalling statements on a bad dose of hay fever. I’m not sure that nasal congestion and itchy eyes can ever be an excuse for shallowness, misogyny and being an out and out lookist. Marion forgave Mr. Inverdale and even paired up with him to commentate on games the following year, so she’s clearly a far nicer and more forgiving person than I’ll ever be.

We know that sexiness sells in sport, as well as it does in other areas of life. And yes, there are examples of similar attitudes and imagery in the field of men’s sports, and handsome sportsmen getting more opportunities in sponsorship deals. The image of David Beckham in a pair of white Armani briefs comes alarmingly to mind - the semi porno full thrusting package of an advert making full use of David’s sexy attributes. But this is Brand Beckham, a project that transcends far beyond the world of sport.

I have a theory that the lack of coverage of women actually playing sport might have something to do with the media focusing on other issues that they think sells the best. Therefore they concentrate more on clothing, sex and intrigue, rather than the play itself. This argument goes slightly south in relation to tennis as it is one of the few sports where women do get airtime during match play as much as the men in the major competitions of the year. As they also fortunately do in the field of athletics.

Other female sports don’t fair so well at all in relation to their levels of participation and popularity, and the amount of media exposure that they receive. A great example of this in the past has been netball, a game that is reportedly played by more than twenty million people in over eighty countries around the world today.

When I used to play netball at local club level, a nostalgic and worrying thirty odd years ago, the vast numbers of women and girls involved in the game led to it being one of the UK’s most popular leisure activities. Up and down the country practically every town, village and school had at least one team or club. At junior and senior level us netball fanatics would play enthusiastically every winter and would attend international fixtures at large venues to cheer on England getting absolutely thrashed by the Australians or Jamaicans. We all knew that it was a fantastic sport to watch, fast paced just like basketball, the players spend half their time off the ground, whilst the watching crowds stamp their feet in raucous union.

Some ten or so years later, after moving to live in Australia, I was fascinated to find that netball was often played in mixed sex teams, something that rarely happens in England. The same passion for the game was evident in the Aussies, but it was even more widespread because, well firstly because they were so bloody good at it, and secondly because both men and women were involved.

Therefore it brings me great happiness, but also a ‘why the heck has it taken so long?’ to find that netball is at last getting coverage on both terrestrial and pay-to-view British television. It’s been a slow development for the sport, but one that was pushed firmly and finally into place with the unbelievably exciting gold medal win by England in the last Commonwealth Games. Their journey through every round of the tournament was broadcast to the general public, who all collectively climbed on board to celebrate the completely unthinkable: England, beating Australia, the Goddesses of Netball, in the final seconds of the final match, in Australia’s own backyard.

Surprise, surprise; after all the positive media coverage of the competition and the team’s success, the England Netball team won both ‘Best Sporting Moment of the Year’ and the coveted ‘Best Team of the Year’ at the BBC Sports Personality Awards 2018.

The performance given by many of the international women teams during the football competition of the 2012 London Olympics also gave British sports fans food for thought. On tuning in, many viewers, including myself, were surprised to learn that the women were playing exciting and professional football. The fact that the female Team GB players were giving it far more of a go than their much better known male equivalents, went a long way in educating the sporting population that yes, women’s football is worth watching too.

Many elements have combined to awaken the eyes of news corporations to the novel ‘can you possibly believe it?’ idea, that women play sports like football to a high level. Beyond the established athletics and tennis, the media knows there are other events that people will enjoy watching also, and that there is an appetite to see the women’s competition in tournaments like the Six Nations Rugby or The Ashes in cricket. At the moment they are generally broadcast late at night or on less prominent channels, but at least it's something in the right direction.

Looking just ahead there is great anticipation in the UK surrounding the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in June, and the Netball World Cup to be held in England in July. Not just because our four nations have great teams and stand a good chance of success, but because we can actually see them compete.

At a very long last, it seems that female sport is finally getting at least some fair share of the broadcasting coverage in club and international sport. Of course we are miles off from a fifty-fifty status quo, but we are moving towards a situation where we can see more talented women achieving even more great things in the sporting arena.

As I type, the news from Roland Garros is that Rafa Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, is one set up in the second round against Germany’s Yannick Maden. Rafa is wearing a yellow top with a matching yellow headband. He looks very handsome. Come on Rafa!


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