When will sport stop treating women as a joke? | Barbara Ellen

Barbara Ellen
Lizzie Armitstead, the reigning Commonwealth road race champion. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, former world race champion, and reigning Commonwealth road race champion, has just published Steadfast: My Autobiography. In a Guardian interview she recounts several examples of sexism, which left this reader with a range of emotions, from mildly irritated to: “Just reading this makes me feel unclean.”

Women were forced to borrow helmets from male riders. On the day that Armitstead became world champion in Richmond, Virginia, her then-coach wasn’t even there, as he’d chosen to prioritise the men’s junior team. As a 19-year-old on tour, Armitstead, now 28, was woken from her bed at 11.30pm and told to go down to the bar to celebrate the birthday of a male cyclist. As the only woman, she had “no choice” but to take part in a Nintendo Wii dance game, while the other male riders watched, which made her feel confused and uncomfortable.

The book also deals with the issue of female prize money. When Armitstead became world champion in 2015, she won £2,000, while the men’s prize stood at £20,000. Armitstead just professes herself pleased that the prize money is now equal.

Armistead’s stories seem to echo the experiences of other female cyclists, such as Jessica Varnish, Nicole Cooke, and Victoria Pendleton. The Nintendo Wii incident comes across as particularly creepy. The impression given is of a young athlete, supposedly a peer, an equal, being subtly toyed with, slyly objectified, simply because she’s female. It also leaps out rather jarringly that it’s only been two years since a world cycling champion lost out on £18k, again because she was female – although of course this doesn’t just relate to the world of cycling.

Indeed, reaching for my Humourless Feminist Calculator™, I was thinking of making a cack-handed attempt to calculate the amount of money (prizes, grants, sponsorship, televised rights, etc) lost by sportswomen in, say, the past 20 to 30 years – again, simply because they were female, and thus their efforts were not as highly regarded, nor their looks deemed model-like enough to warrant stellar deals. Sadly, the calculator displayed the message “You gotta be kidding!” and self-detonated – and that was even before I got to pondering: “No one’s pretending that it’s the Premiership, but why isn’t British female football given satisfactory television coverage?”

In a way, Armitstead’s revelations would seem to represent a microcosm of what’s generally been wrong, and, in some cases, continues to be wrong, with attitudes toward women in sport. How, while there are always enough gilded examples to throw off the argument, this affects everything from female visibility to female remuneration. An entire sporting sex relegated to being perceived as “butch”, “unfeminine”, or alternately, window dressing; female tokens, whose achievements mean less, whose treatment is shabbier, whose triumphs fail to be televised, whose complaints are shrugged off and whose pay has only recently begun to match the men’s, and only then in some sports.

Of course, for many women, sport per se doesn’t matter, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m all for a modicum of gender privacy, indeed, any privacy: men doing what interests them, without women barging in, and vice versa. However, inequality always matters, and, for women who compete in or watch sport, there’s an enduring perception that, in some entrenched way, men own sport, that it’s still a profoundly male enclave and women could only hope to be secondary, a sideshow.

This is the kind of ingrained mentality that could make it seem perfectly reasonable to ask a young sportswoman to leave her bed to go down to a bar to dance on command. It’s hardly surprising that it unsettled Armitstead. For her, for all of us, the message rang out loud and clear: participating in sport isn’t particularly female, but entertaining and titillating men is.

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