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Why 99.99999% of girls are put off sport at school

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A few weeks ago I got a panicky call from a woman booking slots for a radio programme asking if I would come on and talk about a survey that had just been published showing that – I forget the exact figure – something like 99.999999% of school-age girls in the UK had been put off exercise by bad experiences of PE lessons and school sports. It seemed like a woeful underestimate to me. “Who are the remaining 0.000001%?” I asked, bewildered.

The woman replied “That’s what everyone’s been saying!” (I am never the first point of call for any booker.) “But I have to find someone who says it’s ridiculous to be put off by it. I don’t understand. I’m Australian. We just don’t have this problem. Every kid loves school athletics over there.”

What a cultural chasm suddenly opened up beneath our feet. Her with her happy memories of a healthy, outdoorsy life lived under blue skies tented over spaces so wide and open that they almost begged you to run, leap and give fullest reign to exuberant young and competitive spirits. And me with my standard UK-issue memories of freezing cold hockey pitches, blue knees, sodden sodding games of rounders in the rain and screaming teachers on the sidelines who had scorned a career in the SAS because it was full of wimps.

And that was before the powers that be started selling off the playing fields to raise revenue. Then we had to have our games lessons in the park, which meant adding ‘Flee the flasher’ and ‘Dodge the frantic masturbator in the bushes’ to our usual afternoon activities. Though to be fair, we did all learn to run a little faster after that.

In the survey, girls cited having to use dirty changing rooms, having to do sports in front of boys, wanting to do less competitive activities (dance, for example), feeling forced into doing the same thing every year, feeling like their bodies were ‘on show’, thinking sport was unfeminine and getting sweaty and ruining their hair and nails as the reasons why they hated PE.

The Olympics offer an alternative and glorious version of female athleticism

I suspect that like me, your teenage self felt – with varying degrees of justification – most of them at one time or another (I would have felt all of them, but I never had hair or nails decent enough to ruin). Certainly – unless you’re a devout believer in biological determinism and insist that all boys are just born faster, stronger and handier with a bat than we are – we need to look for something to explain statistics which show that by the age of 14, just 12% of girls are doing as much physical exercise as they should, compared to 25% of boys, and that by school-leaving age they are half as likely as boys still to be playing any form of sport. The difference persists into adulthood. One in five men regularly play sport, compared with just one in eight women.

When I was at school there was certainly a bias (both from other girls and in the wider world) against girls competing and striving to do well. Boys were encouraged to race around the playground or football pitch, make noise, take up space and dream of being a captain of this, that and the other team in a way that we just weren’t. Sports are warfare in a minor key and girls were rarely encouraged in their bellicosity. (I sometimes wonder whether, if they were allowed to express it more freely, we would see less vicious, teenage-and-onwards, girl-on-girl bitchery, but that’s a thought for another time.) The surveys and the stats suggest that not much – or not enough – has changed since then. In fact, I suspect that with the rise in body-image issues some elements of it have become even worse.

The Olympics has the potential to offer an alternative and glorious vision of female athleticism. Nearly half (really nearly – 48%!) of the GB team is female and they cover every type of event from equestrian to weightlifting. And while I in no way mean to reduce them to this, the women also offer the vanishingly rare sight of beautiful, healthy bodies rendered lean and gorgeous not by dieting or airbrushing but as the by-product of hours, months and years of dedication and hard work in pursuit of a greater goal – to be the best of the best. The Games offer the prospect of men and women alike competing for gold medals on equal terms, and as recipients, if and when they succeed, not of shame or embarrassment but respect, praise and national admiration. Go, go Team GB!”

Demand a better deal for women in all sports. Sign Stylist’s Fair Game petition at stylist.co.uk/fairgame

Picture credit: Rex Features

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