As part of my ongoing attempt to be as nauseatingly middle class as possible, I ran a marathon last week. I say ‘ran’ – it was more of a flat-footed lurch, evidenced by the grotesque photographs the organisers kindly sent me afterwards where I look like I’m standing still in every shot. I’m not entirely sure who the bugger was in my small circle of chums who suggested we do it, but before long we found ourselves chalking up the miles, the playlists and the carbohydrates. And the lycra. All the sodding wick-away-nasa-designed-microfibremyarse running gear you believe you can’t live without. This is the problem with running; I naively thought it was the sport of Spartans, requiring only the soles of my feet and a bowl of olives to get me round. Is it bollocks.
My own experience of shopping for running gear rendered plain the absolute lack of compassion some major sports manufacturers still have about women’s bodies when engaged in physical activity. In one particular self-styled ‘marathon’ shop, I found only two styles of supportive running bra for women – neither of which, after the robust scientific testing known as ‘running on the spot in the changing room’, actually did the job they were designed to do. My mother, who started jogging in the 80s when athletes wore shoulder pads, would talk about her friends running with two bras or their swimming costume, or some mind-boggling combination of all three. I guess I’ve to be grateful for small mercies, but the slow pace by which sports technology is catching up with biology makes it seem like breasts have only just been invented.
And so, women in sport is still a phrase which still, despite the sheer volume of evidence to the contrary, sounds like a non-sequitor. Like squirrels on surfboards or dogs in outfits. Oddly intriguing, but somehow not quite right. At best, it remains a mildly fetishised special interest and nowhere is this more evident than in the clothing sportswomen are expected to where both in – and out – of the arena.
A survey by Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation showed that secondary girls are put off from sports and physical activity because they have bad experiences doing PE at school, and no wonder. What could possibly be worse for a burgeoning woman’s self confidence than doing handstands in front of all your laughing classmates, in a pair of bottle-green canvas gym knickers, when your breasts are erupting from puberty, you’ve started your period and you’ve got chaff marks on your thighs from where your puppy fat rubs? It’s a wonder we manage to leave the house, let alone win gold at the Olympics.
But once you’re a pro, and the itchy knickers are a distant memory, what you choose to wear becomes even more significant, and you’d better hope you’re good looking enough for anyone to notice your athletic prowess. A comment piece in today’s Guardian about the growing popularity of the Women’s Lingerie Football League in the US (yes, really) makes some excellent points about the crass exploitation of sex as a means to get men to watch women’s American football. As the author says, “Men, as everyone seems to have decided, are by and large the biggest consumers of sport. Any sport, except women’s – unless, they are good-looking and/or under-dressed.” She also makes some strong arguments about one of the biggest issues women in sport face – that to be paid on a par with their male peers they must exploit the talent-rich opportunities of shaving their legs and wearing heels and make-up for whichever sponsor they can secure. Stylist Magazine is currently running an excellent campaign called Fair Game, which seeks to raise the profile of women in sport. Their statistics are so shocking it’s like a decimal point went walkabout: Women’s sport only receives 0.5% of sports sponsorship (compared to the 62.1% men get); and only 5% of sports coverage is about women. Let’s not even get started on dearth of female sports commentators or the conspicuous absence of a single female candidate on the BBC’s oxymoronic Sports Personality Of The Year. Perhaps, like looks and brains, it is considered impossible for women to possess talent in both fields.
So it goes. In the run up to the Olympics when billions of eyes will be on our tiny island, Jessica Ennis ends up advertising Olay skincare, Victoria Pendleton is sponsored by Pantene, and all of them are gathered, preened, plucked and oiled for photo-heavy features in magazines and Sunday supplements where they are made to look like anything but the medal-winning athletes they are. I believe in a woman’s right to revel in her varied roles and needs – women can be homemakers, breadwinners or recordbreakers, and some – like the inimitable Paula Radcliffe, for example – are all of those things at the same time. Yes, we can sweat on the track, then shower and put on a frock if we so choose, but the latter must not be the rule by which we justify the former as our right to be women in sport.
Otherwise you end up with something akin to the ridiculous Compeed advert doing the rounds at the moment in which top seed tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki is dressed up like a hooker and forced to play a game in 7-inch high heels. All I could think, watching it, was ‘FORTHELOVEOFGODWOMAN, don’t go over on your ankle or your career’s fucked’. As a professional sportswoman I have no doubt thoughts of breaking things also crossed her mind as she was made to play really, really bad tennis on camera.
Men, you may protest, are also required to advertise similar lifestyle products, in male grooming, fashion and underwear, some of which is pretty eye-watering to behold. But it’s the exception, not the rule, and for every Golden Balls advertising campaign, I can find hours of live-streamed, inane potato-headed men taking lumps out of one another on a muddy field somewhere. Let’s be honest, there is no parity in sports marketing or coverage for male and female sports stars, because deep down inside we still feel a bit squiffy about women doing sport, full stop. It’s summed up in the sweaty hands and nervous cough from the man at the store when you ask if they’ve got the baby pink, high-impact compression top in ‘anything larger than a size 8, please’.
Until we find equality here, I won’t settle for anything less than Andy Roddick dressed like a hooker and forced to play a tennis game in 7-inch heels. Now that I would pay to see.