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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Forty years on from Billie Jean King and the Battle of the Sexes, how is sport treating women?

Ed Smith | May/June 2015

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In women’s sport, as in many things, the Renaissance world was ahead of its time. Pisanello’s 1435 painting “A Ballgame” shows a courtly and elegant woman hitting what looks like a forehand down the line with a touch of topspin. L’uomo universale was not always an exclusively masculine concept.

Modern sport, however, is mostly a male ghetto. Only three sports offer anything like equal prominence to women – equestrianism, tennis and athletics. Why has sport struggled for equality? Is it bound up with masculine stereotypes and prejudices?

Whether as players, spectators, commentators, coaches or administrators, women have faced a wall of cultural resistance. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, felt that “women’s role should be what it was at medieval tournaments – handing the victor his laurels”. He was reflecting a wider view. To the Victorians, the idea of women athletes was morally dubious. In Thomas Rowlandson’s risqué watercolours of English rural life, the women playing cricket or running races were often prostitutes. After being shut out in 1896, women did compete at the Paris Olympics in 1900 – but they numbered only 22 out of 997 athletes. No wonder they set up their own rival Olympics in Monaco in 1921-23.

Different sports have progressed at wildly diverging speeds. Cycling has often led the way. In 1897 Sus­anne Lindberg of Denmark covered 1,000km in 54.5 hours, breaking the world record for road cycling and coming in nearly two hours faster than the leading man. She also shot down the contemporary view that cycling stopped women having children; she had seven.

In the 20th century, tennis provided women’s sport with its pivotal moment and its most implacable figurehead: the so-called Battle of the Sexes and Billie Jean King. It was an archly prejudiced man, ironically, who arranged the victory. In the early 1970s Bobby Riggs (pictured, with King), an ageing tennis champion turned hustler, began bad-mouthing leading female players as weak and fragile. Any proper male player, he said, could “psych them out”.

Margaret Court accepted Riggs’s challenge and promptly lost (appearing to be psyched out, just as he promised). So King swallowed her reluctance and agreed to a second showdown. In 1973, watched by up to 90m viewers, she played Riggs and won in straight sets. She became a reformer as well as a figurehead, driving the foundation of the women’s tennis tour and campaigning for equal funding for women’s sport in schools. Yet even now, 40 years on, tennis continues to produce baffling moments. In January Eugenie Bouchard, who is in the world top ten, had just won a match at the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne. A TV commentator, apparently impressed by her fluorescent outfit, asked her to “do a little twirl”. There is an issue of substance beneath the silliness. Anna Kournikova, who never won a WTA singles tournament, used her looks to earn far more than players who were beating her.

Women’s sport is advancing fastest in an unlikely quarter: football. In 1921 the fa in effect banned women’s football for 50 years, deeming the game “quite unsuitable for females”. Today it is Britain’s third-most-popular team sport, behind men’s football and men’s cricket. When England Women faced Germany at Wembley in November, the FA capped the tickets at 55,000, only to find they could have sold 15,000 more. When Stephanie Roche scored a wonder goal for Peamount United against Wexford Youths, the YouTube film went viral. Shortlisted for the Puskas award for the best goal, she had to settle for second – sandwiched between World Cup goals by James Rodriguez and Robin van Persie. She is now playing for Houston Dash. If women aren’t yet competing on the same pitch as men, their skills are entering the same league.

In football and cricket, female participation has been driven by policy. Beefing up media attention has been a central factor. The BBC’s “Test Match Special”, for which I work, has made reports on England Women a feature of its broadcasts, and has female voices describing the men’s game. Cricket on the radio is no longer an old boys’ club.

One area where sport inexplicably drags its feet is coaching. After dismantling Tomas Berdych in an Australian Open semi-final, Andy Murray thanked his coach, Amélie Mauresmo. “We have shown women can be very good coaches as well,” Murray said, replying to some knee-jerk criticism. Top-flight female coaches remain extremely rare. In 2014 Helena Costa became the first woman to manage a men’s professional football team, Clermont Foot 63 in France; but she left before the season began, citing sexism. Even at amateur level, only 31% of British sports coaches are female.

I find myself changing my mind about the progress of women’s sport. Many women I know still feel excluded by the prevailing laddish tone of sports culture, especially in football (which grabs 61% of sport in the British media). Yet when I watched “The Battle of the Sexes”, a 2013 documentary about the Riggs-King match, the really shocking feature was not Bobby Riggs himself, but the size of the constituency to which he appealed. He was a hustler looking for easy money, and male chauvinism in sport offered an under-supplied market. Today, he would be laughed out of town.

Modern sport has only been around for a century and a half. Until 1962, English cricket was split in two – amateurs and professionals. And before 1995, rugby-union players were forbidden to earn an official salary. Both these notions now seem ridiculous. A prediction: one day, sooner than we think, the idea of women’s sport as the poor relation will be just as laughably anachronistic.

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