John reflects on his keynote address at the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards
It’s a nonsense to think that women can only be role models for other women and girls. In sport, and business, women can be exceptional examples for everyone.
I attended and spoke at the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards recently and found myself in the company of, and inspired by, a huge number of sporting stars all present to celebrate those athletes, community organisers, volunteers and governing bodies who had made strides in the battle for gender equality in sport.
I find myself exhausted by the number of men – who’s providence in sport is at most a Saturday afternoon kick about – who still insist on pontificating on the worthiness of women’s sport.
My take is this: women’s sporting equity is not just an issue of fairness or even the important idea of creating role models for girls and young women, but rather a broader point. Currently we have a real paucity of role models for boys and young men and many of the female athletes I know of and had the privilege to meet at the WST event are the perfect substitute for those in our more traditional sports who continue to underwhelm.
More than this, there are things – shock horror – that women’s sport can teach us, and especially our young people, regardless of gender. I broadcast the basketball competitions in the London 2012 Olympics and watched a lacklustre men’s competition sprinkled with the occasional sparkle and all too many fist fights, but all too little functional competitiveness. Contrast this with the women’s competition that was gritty and hotly contested with a level of skill and expertise equal to that of any men’s game. I commented on air that I hoped young people were watching the women’s competition in order to grow as players and as competitors rather than scanning the men’s competition to emulate the player celebrations and the dunk techniques.
If the skill and style of play wasn’t enough, I witnessed something that really sealed my already ardent support for women’s sport. At the end of an incredibly hard fought game between Russia and France in which France lost a close game, I watched the French captain Celine Dumerc walking despondently off the floor. There were a group of French athletes from other disciplines who called her over to console her and then she turned to leave and walked – trudged really – back to the locker room until she heard some fans call her name. They weren’t French fans – just Londoners who’d got lucky in the ticket lottery. A boy of 11 or 12 leant over the rails waving a piece of paper and a pen and despite her exhaustion and disappointment at her tournament being over, Celine turned, smiled and sprinted over and signed numerous autographs.
I watched as she turned scraps of paper into priceless memorabilia for a group of young boys and girls and before she left, she slapped five to that young man and then jogged to the locker room. As Celine left the floor, I looked back to the group, most excitedly starring at their autographs, but the boy who had caught her attention just starred open-mouthed at his hand – he looked like her high five had jolted him full of electricity, full of hope and most evidently, full of joy.
You’ve probably never heard of Celine Dumerc, she’s a better athlete than I could ever have hoped to be, a true Olympian and obviously an extraordinary role model.
Make no mistake, there are countless female athletes like Celine Dumerc you haven’t heard of training in your towns, competing at venues minutes away from you, and, if they’re lucky, reported as a result in a sentence next to another inane story about Premiere League footballers pre-game habits or post-game antics.
…there are things that women’s sport can teach us…especially our young people, regardless of gender
Men need to understand that they are a vital part of the organisational infrastructure required to make sport better for women. Like with efforts made by any minority group –meaning those groups that don’t hold the lion’s share of power and privilege – those in the majority need to stand with those seeking to make positive change. By being advocates for women in sport, men can help affect a sea change that will contribute to more opportunities for women and girls to participate in sport, more women being seen as role models for all genders, and a better sporting culture for everyone.
We need to address the inequity in women’s sport, not just for our wives, daughters and female friends, but because the increased visibility and recognition of these remarkable athletes provides a much needed antidote to the under-inspiring crop of male athletes, not to mention opportunities for our daughters AND our sons to be inspired by these remarkable women.
In a world where there are golf clubs that still exclude women members, it is clear that many still need to be forced to recognise the amazing skill and the transformative impact of female athletes on all of us.