Wonder Women – How Female Athletes may shine the brightest for Britain this summer

By Josh Cowls

After the flags have come down in Regent Street, the athletes have departed the village, and the nation reflects on Britain’s performance as both host and competitor, there may be one observation that dawns upon the sporting punditocracy. The extent of Team GB’s medal table standing may well be due to the disproportionate success of its women athletes.

Many readers may ask why, indeed, this should be a matter of debate. Why should a perceived gender gap be any more a salutary subject of discussion than, say, that of race or class? The Olympics has always been about tolerance and inclusivity, about overcoming all sorts of cultural boundaries, both intra-and international. Aren’t we a little too twenty-first century to get caught up in consideration of gender?

By way of a visual response, I’d draw your attention to the front page of the BBC’s sport website. Of the seven sports they list in prime position at the top, only tennis can claim to have anything approaching reasonably parallel coverage for both men and women. This is not to prejudge those sports fans who find the male version of any given sport more compelling viewing than the female variation; indeed those who dream of absolute parity of popularity will still find the lopsided viewing figures for men’s and women’s football matches sobering. But it does bring home the point that, whether judged by the yardstick of coverage, support or remuneration, top class sport is by no means a level playing field for the sexes.

The Olympic Games are and almost always have been different. For more than a century women have been formal competitors in the Games. That no prize money is awarded for either sex, and that male and female events are interwoven into the same competition schedule, are two structural factors that have perhaps mollified an apparent public tendency towards male-dominated sports in other arenas.

Nevertheless, it would be slightly hopeful to pretend that male and female participants have exactly equal treatment in a typical Olympiad. For starters, most sports have either actively proscribed or tacitly discouraged female participation for much of their Olympic history. Shooting and sailing both had ‘open’ gender events for many years, whilst women had to wait more than a century longer than men to partake in wrestling.

But the tide has turned in recent games, and with the introduction of women’s boxing, London 2012 will be the first games where men and women can both compete in every sport. (Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming, both technically disciplines, are perhaps mercifully women- only.) With the advent of closer gender parity at the Games, a look at Britain’s brightest prospects for gold suggests that the host nation will benefit from these adjustments. To take boxing as a first example, Britain qualified female fighters for all three weight categories with a medal of each colour in May’s World Championships. A repeat performance could well see female boxers match or even
surpass Team GB’s seven male fighters in London.

An interesting prospect looms in the Velodrome. Great Britain won an unprecedented seven golds on the cycling track in Beijing, and that five of these were on the men’s side was partly testament to the unequal event programme, with seven events for men and three for women. It’s all change in London, with men and women having the same five events each. Thus whilst 2008 individual pursuit

champion Bradley Wiggins was naturally disappointed to be unable to be able to defend his title, Beijing double Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton, who can now aim for three golds, saw it as “a very positive step for female track cycling”. Pendleton and emerging star Laura Trott will lead the charge for the women’s titles in London.

Meanwhile, on and in the water, Britain’s medal surge is likely to be female-led. This weekend’s final World Cup regatta in Munich confirmed that the likeliest two crews to stand atop the podium at Eton Dorney are female, with both the double sculls and the coxless pair maintaining their imperious recent form. Remarkably, given the strong tradition on the men’s side, a win for either of these crews would mark Britain’s first ever women’s rowing gold. In the Aquatic Centre, probably the host’s top five medal prospects are all women, led by the all-conquering Rebecca Adlington. And whilst Ben Ainslie may be by far and away the best chance of gold in sailing, a recent ‘dry run’ regatta at Weymouth saw Alison Young the only British 2012 Olympian to win her event, in the Laser Radial.

In other sports, the outlook is more even for men and women. In the Athletics Stadium, Jessica Ennis recently reclaimed her status as ‘golden girl’ following a personal best heptathlon performance in Gotzis, though there will be strong challenges too from Mo Farah and Phillips Idowu. Britain could well pick up two golds in the men’s and women’s triathlon, courtesy of one of the Brownlee brothers and Helen Jenkins respectively. Sarah Stevenson is strongly favoured in her taekwondo weight division, but the controversial omission of Aaron Cook has lessened chances on the men’s side.
And Britain is likely to enjoy some success in sports that see men and women competing together. Britain’s equestrian team looks strong, whilst the mixed doubles badminton pair of Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier could spring a surprise.

All in all, though, it could be Britain’s women who most prominently propel the host nation up the medal table at the Games – and as an eternal optimist, I think the 19 gold medals won in Beijing overall could be surpassed this summer. If Britain’s female Olympians in particular enjoy the unprecedented success that their form hints at, it will mean more women on the front and back pages. This will not only be an important counterweight to the general trend of male-dominated sports coverage in the UK, but also a sign of the inclusive power of sport the world over, in stark contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia who deprive their women of the right to participate.

As so uncannily parodied in the BBC’s spoof comedy Twenty Twelve, ‘legacy’ is one of the buzzwords being thrown around as justification for hosting the costly games. If home Olympic success means that more girls are inspired to get involved in sport, and women’s sport enjoys a higher public profile, that’s a legacy we should all celebrate.

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