Minority report: Why does women’s sport have to play second fiddle?

DERVAL O'ROURKE: Sometimes I feel as if I’m part of a secret club.

Minority report: Why does women’s sport have to play second fiddle?

It’s a popular club with a large membership but very little exposure — it’s the club of women’s sport. You could be forgiven for thinking not very many women actually take part in competitive sport. We don’t fill the sports pages of newspapers nor do we grace tv screens every weekend. The numbers may not be as high as men’s sport but participation is certainly not proportionate to the levels of exposure. In many ways, I’m hugely fortunate to be involved in a sport that offers equal pay and coverage for men and women. Track and field is a sport I’ve always found fair.

However, I believe being a successful sportswoman can be a more complicated affair than being a successful sportsman. One of the first aspects society appears to judge sportswomen on is not their ability or performance but their physical appearance and level of attractiveness. I have had the odd nasty comment on Twitter or online posts over the years but thankfully the positive comments have always outweighed the negative. Unfortunately, not so for some very accomplished sportswomen.

A few days ago, British gymnastics great Beth Tweddle took part in a Sky Sports Twitter Q&A. She was subjected to vile abuse, which ranged from slating her looks, to questioning her sexuality and calling her a whore. It was Twitter at its most offensive. I know Twitter can be a forum for this troll-like behaviour but it showcased a glimpse of the worst attitudes towards sportswomen.

Sportswomen need to use their bodies in a functional way, such as being able to lift heavy weights and move muscle mass fast, which normally rules out being waif-thin. However society and the media seem to have perpetrated the notion that extreme slenderness is the most enviable body type. Thankfully, I see more and more women discussing the adage “Strong is the new skinny”, a concept that sits far better with me than the drive to be stick-thin. Men are applauded for their strength and fitness and I believe it should be the same for women.

BT Sport conducted a survey of 110 British female athletes across 20 different sports recently and revealed 80% of female athletes feel pressure to look a certain way. Whilst 67% believe the public and media value looks more than achievement. To me, that’s a bad reflection on what truly matters: performance. Though it reflects how all women in society are reported to feel, I had hoped that women in sport would be different.

One of the problems faced by women’s sport is the media coverage it is allocated and its treatment as a subject of minority interest. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in the UK, it’s estimated the media coverage of women’s sports is about 5% of total sports coverage, which correlates to the worrying figure that sponsorship revenue for women’s sports is about 0.5%.

I can appreciate the argument from the other side but it’s a Catch 22 situation. I can see how the media needs to provide coverage where there is a high interest level but how can women’s sports develop that interest level if there is no coverage? For interest to grow, it must be accessible. It is estimated there’s one article about women’s sports for every 53 about men’s. How is it possible to grow interest from a statistic like that?

The other argument used to justify the lack of coverage alludes to the notion that women’s sport is simply not at the same skill level and their team sports are not as fast. In my opinion, that’s a completely unfair argument. Take athletics, the men are obviously faster than the women but the coverage is equal and the women’s events are judged for their own merit. When Jessica Ennis lit up the Olympic Stadium, it was one of the greatest moments of the Olympic Games, there was no hushed discussion of her achievement being mediocre compared to a man.

Women’s sport needs coverage because without it, accruing sponsors and fans is a tough ask. I think the print media could definitely do more to showcase women’s sport and we don’t have any shortage of females to report on. There must be a corresponding increase in television coverage. Last year’s RTE Sports Personality Of The Year had ten nominees with only one female, Annalise Murphy. There was no nomination for Aoife Clark, who had a fantastic year in Eventing, nor could RTE find space for a female GAA star, despite room for two male GAA players. It seemed Juliet Murphy coming out of retirement to win her eighth All-Ireland title in nine years wasn’t worthy enough either.

I’m a huge fan of tennis — perhaps it’s the amazing job the WTA has done in the past 40 years to fight for equal money and recognition. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that the women on tour are incredible athletes who showcase their prowess in every game. In a recent interview, Billie Jean King was asked how she sees women in sport 40 years after the WTA was formed and answered “We don’t have the opportunity to play as many sports at the pro level, we are not even scratching the surface”. So despite great leaps, the promotion of women’s tennis is still a work in progress. The WTA has given women huge opportunities to pursue their sporting careers but how many other sports afford women the same?

There are definitely examples of progression — for example the Irish women’s Grand Slam-winning rugby team will be playing in the Aviva next month. Liberty signing on as a sponsor for both men’s and women’s GAA is also a step forward. There are programmes in place through the Irish Sports Council such as the Women In Sport initiative but the media and the corporate world need to get on board.

I would really like to get to a point where I can open a newspaper and it isn’t difficult to find a sports story focused on women. I’d like to see more women involved in sport analysis on tv, more women in high profile positions in sports administration and more female success in sport discussed. Not as tokenism but because women are good enough to be. It’s 2014 and there’s no need for secret clubs — it’s time to start doing more than scratching the surface and for sportswomen to really be seen.

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