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Elite female sport 2022: a year of big advances but also some complications

Over time it has become a bit of a cliché, but “back in the day” – when comic Frankie Howard (1917-1992) was a British household name milking his “conspiratorial” relationship with his stand-up audiences and/or television viewers – he often compounded the effect by chiding them for laughing at his withering asides about his “targets” (often his fellow cast members) with quips such as “No, no, don’t laugh …” and “It’s wicked to mock the afflicted …” etc.

For no discernible reason to occurred to me this week – as the year 2022 draws to a close against a background in which in the UK the England Lionesses won football’s European Cup and forward Beth Mead the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year award last weekend – that there are one or two complications and warning signs to be wary of amidst the general positivity surrounding elite female sport.

At the risk of undermining the points I wish to make today by attracting the criticism “Methinks the lady doth protest too much …” [technically itself a misquotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1604) in which Gertrude opines “The lady doth protest too much, methinks …”] and/or out of touch, old-fashioned and misogynistic, I believe that the “advancement of women” generally in terms of equal treatment with men has to contend with serious qualifications when it comes to elite sport.

To be blunt, I don’t buy into the “quota”-related argument that females will always remain fundamentally discriminated against unless and until the day ever dawns when the boardrooms of all commercial organisations and businesses have a 50:50 representation of men and women – (and for Pete’s sake, let’s leave the transgender issue out of the equations for these purposes).

In sport this thrust has developed into a scenario in which the notion has become common that e.g. all female sportspersons who are fortunate enough to play or participate at international level (irrespective of the sport or game) should be treated – and paid – similar amounts to their male equivalents.

And furthermore, that elite female games and sporting events should also be given equal prominence and game-time upon our television screens and radio stations in terms of live broadcasts as their male counterparts.

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate that one route to improving the lot of female sport generally is to give it as much “visibility” as possible.

My reservations lie in what I regard as the false assumption that – if women play or participate in the same sport/game as men, then they (the women) are immediately/automatically entitled to the same salaries, degree of celebrity and public attention etc. as men.

For me that is a non-sequitur.

It would be the equivalent of a young male model making his first steps in the fashion industry standing up and demanding to be paid as much as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell or Gigi Hadid: after all – if they’re models – then, as night follows day, it is discriminatory against men if they are not paid the same. (Or so would run the argument).

My impression from reading the media reports since the weekend is that the BBC is in danger of making a horlicks of its annual Sports Personality of The Year award show.

It used to be as much a feature of the UK festive period as the Morecambe and Wise Show, the Queen’s Speech and Jules Holland’s Annual Hootenanny. However, over the last five years or so, stage by stage, it has progressively become a box-ticking salute to “Diversity” and woke-ness.

One of the sadder, but in my view inevitable, features of the “emancipation” of elite female sport is the impact of the differences between the physiology of males and females.

In one respect, put at its simplest and most direct – in many sporting events and games the importance of strength, power, speed, stamina and bulk is paramount – this perhaps best but imperfectly summed up by the time-honoured boxing maxim that “A good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un”.

There’s nothing that the activists can do about it – it applies in female sports as much as it does in the male versions.

Hard training can cause strains and repetitive injuries. Women’s bodies and limbs are more susceptible to certain types of injuries and conditions. One specific feature frequently remarked upon in sports medicine research projects is that females are particularly prone to suffer ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries.

Being an elite female sportsperson – amidst any campaigns to increase female participation generally and/or gain “equality in income” [and let’s not get into the issue of whether or not female tennis players should have to play “best of five set” contests to get paid the same as professional male tennis players, or not] – is not an unanswerable demand for equality.

The fact remains that, biologically, women are not the same as men.

If they were, there’d be no need for “female only” versions of any sport because men and women would simply play alongside – and against – each other, and on the same teams, and – if the women were good enough – they’d get picked, no doubt in preference to men who were de facto inferior.

And why not?

See here for two reports on the ACL issue:

The first appears today upon the website of the – DAILY MAIL

The second appears upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN

[Note – the latter comes with the caveat that The Guardian newspaper sometimes prevents the “linking” of its articles to third parties …]


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About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts