When being good just isn’t enough for female athletes

The National Basketball Arena in Tallaght, tucked away down a nondescript laneway just off the M50, is a quaint kind of building for a place only turning 21 this year.

It’s painted brick walls, tuck shop and 1980s-style upholstered lounge are reminiscent of an era long since passed but it is, in one other respect, light years ahead of most others as a sporting venue thanks to the events which have decorated its halls.

Now renamed simply ‘The Arena’, it has expanded its remit to host exhibitions, exams and concerts but basketball remains integral to its DNA and, unlike most stadia in Ireland, it has been the scene for as many heroic deeds performed by women as it has men.

That tradition continues tonight.

Basketball’s annual, weekend-long cup final extravaganza kicks off with the meeting of UL Huskies and Team Montenotte Hotel in the Women’s Cup final and, with the sold out signs in place and a live TV slot on Setanta, it will offer a rare opportunity for women’s sport to step into the spotlight.

Think about it: how many women’s sporting events have any of us taken in since the start of 2014? Some tennis from Australia, perhaps? Maybe a few of Fionnuala Britton’s cross country races? Over the course of this year, only 5% of the sport we watch on TV will involve women. Their take of the sponsorship pie is a tenth of that.

Sport has made repeated and concerted efforts to promote an inclusive approach by launching anti-racism campaigns and, though some sports and some countries clearly do so only in the sense that it is a box that must be seen to be ticked, it is still a trend to be welcomed.

Women continue to exist as second-class citizens.

There’s a simple argument made to justify that and it was one addressed by Maureen McGonigle, an administrator with the Scottish FA back in the 1990s. “Men always want to talk about the standard of women’s football, which isn’t and couldn’t be as high as the men’s game,” she once said. “But they’ve had 100 years’ more practice.”

Women’s sport has clearly made encouraging strides in recent times but, whatever about a lack of air time or money, more fundamental issues remain to be tackled, among them the dismissive and in some cases downright hostile attitudes towards some of those who have excelled and dared to assume the spotlight.

Beth Tweddle won a bronze medal for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics. Earlier this week she took part in a Q&A session on Twitter and was promptly bombarded with a level of hate and hostility which other prominent women from other sectors in society can sympathise with.

Much of it came in the form of taunts about her appearance.

This was on the back of Rebecca Adlington, a four-time Olympic medallist, whose very public emotional turmoil over body image issues on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here last month brought to the fore again the fact that female sports stars are judged by a different standard to their male colleagues.

A recent survey in the UK of elite female athletes found that there was as much perceived pressure to look good as there was to be good and it is no wonder when you can google Adlington’s name and find that four of the top 10 predictive text prompts include the words ‘fat’, ‘feet’, ‘ugly’ and ‘nose’.

Not one returns the words ‘Olympic’, ‘champion’ or ‘medallist’ and it is worth remembering that Jessica Ennis-Hill was reluctant to pursue an athletics career as a teenager because she felt the athletic build required for it would be at odds with society’s expectations of the female figure.

Old-fashioned attitudes to women’s sport were exposed yet again this week when Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard was asked who her dream date was just moments after the biggest win of her career (securing a place in the Australian Open semi-final).

The reporter (a female) had the good grace to look sheepish and prefaced it by claiming that a lot of male fans wanted to know but that this sort of stuff is deemed acceptable in the coverage of sport is staggering.

“People in the States used to think that if girls were good at sports their sexuality would be affected,” wrote Martina Navratilova in her book Being Myself 30 years ago. “Being feminine meant being a cheerleader, not being an athlete. The image of women is changing now. You don’t have to be pretty for people to come and see you play. At the same time, if you’re a good athlete, it doesn’t mean you’re not a woman.”

Clearly, there are still too many who think otherwise.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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