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"It's time to wake up to women's sport"

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London 2012 presenter Clare Balding pledges to boost the profile of UK sportswomen.

I bought my nephew some football boots and shin pads for his fourth birthday earlier this year. He was thrilled. I said when he grew out of them, he could hand them on to his little sister. He looked at me and laughed, ‘Don’t be silly Auntie Clare – girls don’t play football!’

‘Yes, they do,’ I replied, surprised and slightly outraged.

‘No they don’t. They wave pompoms.’ He turned on his studs and headed off to the garden to practise.

‘Wait until the Olympics!’ I shouted after him. ‘You’ll see…’

In my nephew’s short life, women hadn’t done much sport at all. He caught football matches on Sky that my brother was watching and had seen cheerleaders on American football coverage (my brother is mad for the Superbowl), so his statement was based on his reality. He had not seen any pictures of sportswomen in magazines or newspapers, or heard about them on the car radio. If he had been aware of the 2011 shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year, it wouldn’t have surprised him that no sportswomen were on it – he didn’t realise there were any.

Now, his world is different. As soon as cyclist Lizzie Armitstead won the first British medal of the Olympic Games in the road race (a silver), women were the face of London 2012. Rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won the first gold medal for Team GB, and cyclist Sarah Storey brought the first gold home for ParalympicsGB. Tall women, short women, women in their 50s or in their teens – all of them competitive, determined, physically and mentally strong. Katherine Grainger’s composure after finally winning gold in the double sculls was a reminder that not all women break down when they realise their dream. Kat Copeland’s open-mouthed ‘We won the Olympics’ (after another rowing gold) was a reminder that not all women are confident enough to believe they can win.

Most of all, London 2012 is a reminder that women are capable of doing extraordinary things when nurtured in an environment that doesn’t make them feel inferior.

I presented a feature on the history of women at the Olympic Games and it surprised many people to learn that women had, for a long time, been restricted in the distances they were allowed to run. The 800m for women was banned when some runners supposedly collapsed after the line in 1928. The evidence that anyone collapsed is much disputed but the ban remained in place until 1960. It still amazes me that the men of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were comfortable with the reality of women giving birth without painkillers but didn’t think that they could run 800m without damaging themselves.

Changing Times

One of my most vivid memories of this Games was being in the exCel Centre for the women’s boxing. It was the first time in history that Olympic medals would be awarded to female boxers. The exCel was packed to the rafters and seemed to be almost 80% Irish. I saw men, women and children chanting ‘KATIE, KATIE.’ I saw them crying with pride when their heroine Katie Taylor won.

My dad didn’t used to like the idea of women boxing. I suggested his point of view was entirely valid as long as he also disagreed with men’s boxing. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said. ‘That’s different.’ ‘No it’s not,’ I reasoned. ‘If you think it’s dangerous and unsavoury for two women to try to knock each other out, then it’s dangerous and unsavoury for two men. You’re just used to men doing it.’

After watching Nicola Adams win gold for Team GB and Taylor do the same for Ireland’s only gold of the Olympic Games, I rang my father. ‘Wasn’t that AMAZING?’ He said. ‘All my life I thought boxing was for boys. I was wrong.’

I cannot tell you what a triumph it is for my father to change his mind about a sporting issue. My eldest nephew (aged six) now wants his little sister to be a rower, so she can drag him and his brother along the river on their surfboards. It’s a strange image but within it there is a message – he now thinks his little sister will be strong enough to do that and, indeed, stronger than him. The oldest and the youngest males in my family have changed their view on what women are capable of and what they should be allowed to do. The answer is ‘anything’.

For Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, London marked a moment in history as all three sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. This may only have been a token gesture but it is a start towards access for women to sports facilities in their own countries. The freedom to participate in sport means the freedom to wear clothing that allows movement. Things will change because of sport in the same way that they changed in early 20th-century Britain.

And, just in case we thought this change was going to lose momentum with the end of the Olympic Games, the Paralympics are now in full swing, highlighting fantastic female sporting talents such as ellie Simmonds in the pool; Sarah Storey, who as well as just winning gold in the velodrome has out-sprinted her able-bodied peers to victory more than once; and Kylie Grimes, the only woman in GB’s tough-as-nails wheelchair rugby team.

Keep the momentum

Here’s hoping the London 2012 coverage will pave the way for greater recognition of our country’s disabled female athletes too; especially if we can bag the 103 medals on which ParalympicsGB has set its sights.

So, what next? Women’s football is one of the keys. The most accessible, most popular sport in this country for men is also the most accessible, most popular sport for women. The Football Association (FA) blocked the progress of women’s football by banning women from all FA-affiliated pitches for 50 years from 1921 to 1971. The women’s game is recovering but still needs a boost from either the FA or Premier League. A bold decision would be to play the women’s FA Cup final right before the men’s version at Wembley or to play FA women’s Super League matches right before Premier League games.

Some will say the pitch can’t take it. I say, we will have no idea until we try. Women’s rugby union matches are played at Twickenham before internationals and it seems to work. More than 80,000 people came to Wembley to watch USA beat Japan in the final of the women’s Olympic football and not one of them would argue that they would have got more enjoyment out of watching the men’s final. Many would say they witnessed superior skill and a greater respect for the referee than in some men’s games, but we don’t have to play one-upwomanship here.

After watching Great Britain beat Brazil, Sir Bobby Charlton, a World Cup winner and one of the most respected men in football, said: ‘I have had to remind myself that I am not watching men. I was sceptical of women’s football – that was a mistake. Women’s football used to be ridiculed, but not anymore.’

Media coverage is essential for all sport, and the best formula seems to be a combination of committed coverage on subscription channels – such as eSPN doing the Women’s Super League – along with the BBC or ITV taking internationals. But I would love to see one of the big channels bid for highlight rights to domestic matches. I would not argue for a women’s sport channel but I would suggest to the equalities minister Lynne Featherstone that she has a word with the key decisionmakers about how little female athletes or women’s sport is mentioned on radio sports desks or in sports sections of newspapers.

In Olympic years, the profile of women’s sport rises dramatically but this time next year, I fear we will be back in the dark ages. It’s time for Great Britain to wake up to women’s sport and I pledge here and now to help that happen.”

Clare is presenting all the action from the London 2012 Paralympic Games from 5.30pm on Channel 4 every day

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