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In pursuit of sports equality

For good or ill, today I return to the vexed and ultimately related problems of sexism in sport and extreme political-correctness – a subject that re-emerges from time to time on this highly-regarded media organ.

I am taking as my text for this purpose the article that appears today upon the website of The Guardian penned by former female Olympic cycling champion Nichole Cooke on the alleged sexism inherent in elite British cycling, as revealed by the recent spat between 2016 Olympic hopeful Jess Varnish and British Cycling’s team manager Shaun Sutton:


Also being called in evidence is the controversy that erupted in and around Formula One motor sport about ten days ago when the 85 year-old Bernie Ecclestone, a past master at the practice, planted his foot firmly in his mouth at an Advertising Week Europe conference.

He did so by offering a public utterance to the effect that female drivers would not be taken seriously in Formula One because they were not physically capable of driving a car fast and then adding for good measure that in his opinion Russian president Vladimir Putin “should be running Europe”.

Susie Wolff

Susie Wolff

Inevitably – as one might expect – a female motor sport driver (in this case Pippa Mann) immediately came forward to react on Radio Five Live.

Having first resignedly admitted that “Bernie is Bernie, and plainly is going to be around a while yet …” she cited the example of the Scot Susie Wolff (wife of ‘Toto’ Wolff, executive director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team) who worked for the Williams Formula One team between 2012 and 2015, taking part in four practice sessions, thereby becoming to first woman to take part in a Grand Prix weekend in two decades.

Plainly, history tells us that taking seriously anything that Bernie Ecclestone says is not necessarily an act destined to gain respect, honour or indeed gravitas for a particular viewpoint in a debate such as this.

However, it does highlight one inconsistency – or different set of circumstances – in the constant haranguing of the world’s media and sports fans alike by the PC brigade backing the advancement of those who Scottish Protestant reformer John Knox famously described in the title of his famous 1558 book arguing against female rulers as (The First Blast Against) The Monstruous Regiment of Women.

It is, of course, the obvious one that those seeking to promote the cause of women as potential Formula One racing drivers are doing so in the (one might argue) commendable context that all they are seeking is the right for women to be considered simply on their merits alongside men in a global elite sport.

Although I can appreciate the theoretical logic behind it, I always have some difficulty with the concept of ‘positive action’ in employment, sport or politics, to name but three representative areas of human activity. I am all for ‘equal opportunity’, but remain instinctively entrenched against tokenism and/or quotas, not least because I don’t think these assist those who are promoted under such initiatives in the sense that they may be perceived to have arrived where they have because of said policies, rather than genuine personal merit.

Furthermore, I remain unconvinced by the arguments of Nicole Cooke in her Guardian article (and those like her) simply because they begin from the conceit that ‘whatever men have, women are also entitled to’.

Er … not necessarily, ladies.

Whether anyone likes it or not, life on this planet has some absolutes. No matter how unfair it may seem women’s bodies are designed for the purpose of bearing children and men’s are not. No amount of propaganda, nor legislation if it should come to that, will ever dilute the fact that – should a female potential Olympian get pregnant during an Olympic year – she will endure (or enjoy) a nine-month gestation period. Sadly – if you choose to look at it this way – she will not be able to ‘stop the world ‘ and force the Olympics to be delayed by six months just so that she would be able to attend the festival and give of her best. The way that some of the PC brigade talk, you’d be forgiven for forming the view that this is exactly the sort of thing that should be enacted.

female cyclistsHopefully not being seen to ridicule Ms Cooke’s case by reducing it to a state of absurdity, I would put my thrust on the subject in this manner. Even if she does not specifically state it, she is effectively arguing that if male cyclists race over a distance of 50 miles and are thereby watched by some 7 million live television broadcast viewers for a period of 3 hours, then female cyclists should also be entitled to race over 50 miles and be watched by 7 million viewers for a similar period.

However, patently, that is not necessarily going to happen. For a start, and we’re going back to the argument over whether women tennis players should be paid the same as men here, men’s cycling is inherently more popular with television viewers than women’s cycling – fact.

Women’s sport, whatever form it takes, is generally of less interest to a mass television audience than men’s. Period.

If, for example, you transmitted the men’s cycling 50 mile road race on BBC1, and simultaneously transmitted the female version on BBC2, you’d be able to compare the subsequent ratings and learn the eternal truths that, firstly, generally-speaking, men are more interested in sport than women; and secondly, whereas the majority of men are hard-wired to love (hunter/gatherer) competition – even two flies walking up a window – the majority of women interested in watching elite women’s sport are merely those who are either actual, or aspiring, elite athletes themselves.

[This is a statement that I believe holds generally true, despite the fact that tennis – or at least Wimbledon tennis – proves the exception to the rule because great swathes of British women, who otherwise wouldn’t normally choose to watch televised women tennis from around the world, suspend this attitude for the famous Fortnight every year].

TOUR OF QATAR - STAGE ONEMy other, perhaps more contentious, point is that what elite female cyclists fail to appreciate is that – to be blunt about it – watching a breakaway group, followed by a peloton, of female cyclists wearing (to adapt a famous quotation from the then television critic, the great Clive James, about Olympic downhill skiers) helmets, tight lycra tops and shorts that make them look rather as if they have pulled giant condoms over their heads, bobbing from side to side on their racing bikes with their backsides in the air  … is very little different from watching a similar male equivalent doing exactly the same.

In short, they might as well abandon the practice of keeping men and women apart in separate races. If female cyclists want total equality, then let them race with the men.

That’s all that female motor racing drivers are seeking to do, after all.


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About Charles Thursby

After a lifetime in sports journalism, Charles Thursby continues his immersion in the world of sport by providing the National Rust with dispatches from all points of the compass. More Posts