By Jo Jo Rennie
I remember when I was about 15 and my teacher played a game with us in a PE (Physical Education) class at school. He told us to take it in turns to each name a famous athlete, and to continue around the class until someone hesitated or drew a blank. If we couldn't think of one we were out of the game; eventually leaving one member of the (relatively small) class as the winner. The first round started as the teacher told us to name a famous male athlete. This wasn't confined to “athletes” in respect to track and field athletics, but in regards to any sportsman; regardless of race, nationality, popularity or sport. I think the only condition was that they were to be current sportsmen. Needless to say this round lasted a while; barely any thinking time needed. Once I had my favourite football [soccer] team in mind I was good to go for the next 11 rounds- at least! The teacher stopped the game before anyone even hesitated.
The next round required us to name famous female athletes. Suddenly, we needed our little grey matter to work overtime; from having 25+ footballers to name at a drop of a hat, I remember finding myself struggling to even think of any sports in which women participated! In the UK, tennis is by far the most prolific sport for women, in regards to mass media coverage. I knew a few track athletes as well, and, at the time, about 3 female footballers. I remember doing well in this round. I think an acute combination of the wider knowledge of certain sports and perhaps the simple ability to think quicker than a few of my classmates gave me the critical edge.
In the final round the teacher asked us to name disabled athletes. The class was silent, until it got to me. This was my crowning moment. “Tammy Grey-Thompson” I proudly said, to the shock of my classmates. Suffice to say I won that round. My teacher must have been shocked as well, as he never informed me that I obviously meant Tanni Grey-Thompson. It felt like a hollow win. But a win, nonetheless.
With all my ramblings, I do have a point. I'm 24 now, and I still remember playing this game. It was so simple, yet so effective. Aimed at teenagers, it perfectly demonstrated the effect the mass media has; the gulf in our collective knowledge between all three “categories” was astounding. This wasn't a compulsory PE class; we had chosen to take this option. Pupils in the class were not only in various school sports teams, but were actively interested in the physical and theoretical side of sport and sports media. Yet collectively, we could name, I think, less than 15 female athletes without hesitating and only 1 disabled athlete, male or female. (And even then I didn't really know her full name!).
Unfortunately, almost a decade on, it seems like not a lot's changed. We are promised so much after major sporting events and it feels like not a lot happens, in terms of positive, neutral, media coverage. Of course it takes time. And, of course, it's fantastic to have prolific UK female sporting athletes in the papers more, such as Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton. But, I can read mundane stories about footballer's tweets and their children every other day, yet female sports stars are sidelined repeatedly. The two highest selling newspapers in the UK (The Sun and The Daily Mail respectively) do not have any female sporting section. Women's sport is rarely ever mentioned- even news of success for the home nation. When it is, popular articles are often those where women are the subject of the male gaze, or they are simply one of numerous articles questioning the position of females in sport – such as this. But rarely ever are there just articles reporting on performances in games. In fact it is difficult to find any news on any female sport besides tennis, without actively searching.
The exclusion of any women from last years Sport's Personality of the Year shortlist was overshadowed this year as the list was awash with Olympic talent. Our nation was still beaming with pride and satisfaction at the awards ceremony in mid December; ensuring the Games volunteers were handed almost as much praise as gold winning athletes in a very British form of self adulation. The Queen gave her Christmas speech, taking time to applaud London's hosting of the 2012 Games; a fantastic occasion which was dubbed by many as “the Women's Games”. Personally, I feel that the greatest victory at London 2012 was the inclusion of women in every participating nation's squad for the first time ever. It's been a long time coming, but this is incredible- and a potentially inspiring message for female athletes the world over. Hopefully, female athletes begin to receive greater visibility in 2013 and beyond.
And in another 10 years time I may be able to name a few more disabled athletes.