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Friday, 23 December 2011

Can a woman be a sports personality?

2011 has not been a good year for women's sport.  So said Gary Lineker, in defence of the all-male shortlist for this year's Sport Personality of the Year.

Throughout the show Lineker and his fellow presenter Jake Humphrey repeated their mantra - 'this has been an amazing year for British sport' - with the fervour of vacuum cleaner salesmen coming to the end of the month.  But, if their earlier defence of the award's selection process was true, they obviously didn't think it had been a good year for sport; it had been a good year for men's sport.

Lineker's position can be questioned in a number of ways.

First, we might ask why the BBC's celebration of such an amazing year of sport was so dull.  The BBC is well-versed in reducing thrilling action to gentle tedium (aka A Question of Sport).  But the highlights presented this year didn't amount to much at all.

Second, it s not at all clear how the achievements of Andy Murray and Amir Khan this year are more noteworthy than those of Rebecca Adlington, Jessica Ennis, Kerri-Anne Payne and Sarah Stevenson?  By any objective measure of sporting success, Khan and Murray would have been placed significantly lower than these women.

Of course, the BBC event is not based on objective measures of sporting success.  It is an award for sports personality.  There is obviously something oxymoronic about this phrase; a show based on champions who were also a bit of a laugh would barely make it through the opening credits.

According to the organisers, the award ought to go to the "to the sportsman or woman whose actions have most captured the public's imagination".

And here is the problem.  The vast majority of people's information about sport is via the media, which decide for us what we celebrate.  So, Sports Personality of the Year highlights a much bigger issue, which is the highly partial coverage of sport.

Some sports are covered; others are ignored.  Some sports people are lauded; others are demonised; others are invisible.  A football match between Bangor v Prestatyn is televised live; England winning the World Netball Series passes with barely a mention.

The standard defence is that coverage of sport follows demand.  But demand settles for the diet of sports presented.  Spectator sports that are, on the surface, profoundly dull (snooker, darts, Welsh football) can secure an TV audience, whilst more obviously exciting sports (basketball, kickboxing, netball) are pushed to the margins, or satellite TV.  And, generally speaking, we don't have much interest in sports we have never seen.

Occasionally, the media bias that is inherent within the system works in favour of individual women, but for reasons that have nothing to do with sport.  How else can be explain Zara Phillips' otherwise inexplicable prize in 2006 (ahead of Beth Tweddle, Nicole Cooke, and some men) or her mother's victory in 1971?

Take away the Royalty effect, and eleven women have won the award in the fifty-eight years history of the event.  Despite the suggestion by some that matters are starting to sort themselves out in our more enlightened times, the ratio of male to female winners has remained relatively consistent from the beginning.

A perusal of the list of past winners shows a clear pattern: female victory usually requires an  unprecedented achievement (think Kelly Holmes, Virginia Wade, Paula Radcliffe).  Male victory often requires much less.

The outstanding example of an athlete who has somehow been overlooked by the media is the triathlete Chrissie Wellington. Despite the fact that she is widely regarded by sport professionals as one of the world's greatest athletes of any discipline, and continues to dominate the ludicrously challenging Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run), she is hardly known at all in her home country.

Wellington was not shortlisted in any of the four years she won the Ironman (which included 2011).  Writing in her blog, Wellington seems remarkably philosophical about the debacle:
"But the responsibility doesn't just lie with the media, it lies with the athletes to actively engage with the media, it lies with the governing bodies who must package their sports to make them attractive, it lies with sponsors to package their athletes and it lies with the government to promote a range of sports in schools."
She is right, of course.  The marginalisation of women's sport is the result of systemic bias.  But 'the system' is not a thing in itself; it is the complex of different elements.  Change happens through these elements.

The "panel of industry experts" selected by the BBC to shortlist was made up entirely of newspaper and magazine sports editors:
"These are chosen because of their expertise in the area, their coverage of a wide range of sports throughout the year and the extent of their readership".
Actually, this just means that all national and larger regional newspapers were invited to vote, along with Nuts and Zoo magazines.

I'm not making this up.  Nuts ("it's got girls. Lots of girls. Glamour models, enthusiastic girls-next-door, brunettes, blondes") and Zoo ("a compelling package of girls, football, bloke news and funny stuff") contributed to the selection panel for Sports Personality of the Year.

So we have reason to doubt their suitability for this particular task.  We might also wonder whether newspaper editors, who surely must take some responsibility for currents inequities, really fulfil the BBC's stated requirements of expertise and coverage of a wide range of sports.  It requires no complex statistics to realise that the column inches given to male sports people is hugely greater than for their female peers.  And when women sports people are giving newspaper space, it is rarely their sporting prowess that is the focus.

At least the Daily Mail, the voice of reason and tolerance, kept the issue alive.  The day after the Sports Personality of the Year was broadcast, the paper had an extended feature on some the leading female sports people in Britain:

"The females may have been missing off of the shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Awards, but they certainly made an impact on the red carpet earlier tonight.

The ladies of the sporting world couldn't wait to flash their legs and show off their glitzy style at the bash ..."

I suppose we are lucky that some of the female sports people are attractive.  Otherwise, there'd be no coverage at all.


martyn.skipper said...

Richard Bailey said...

hi Martyn. Yours is an interesting article. Although I was disappointed to learn that I hadn't invented the oxymoron joke!