In My Place – a man’s position in Women’s Sport

I’ve always tried to position myself as relatively cool; a myth I have spent far too much time attempting to propagate with varying degrees of unsuccessful result.  Nowhere have I attempted this more than in the musical scene, always trying to be one step ahead of the Mercury Prize and end of year best album lists through careful appropriation of other people’s better taste, which I subsequently pass off as my own opinion.  ‘Oh, yes, they’re a fine band, but really they’re just ripping off the Jesus and Mary chain, aren’t they?’  The fact that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Coldplay has, you’ll understand, been a constant source of personal frustration.  Yet like them I do and, when listening away to ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’ last week whilst thinking about The Sportist, I was struck by a thought: In My Place; what is that?

As some of you may be aware, The Sportist is not an exclusively xx chromosome writing zone.  Obviously, it is an exclusively women’s sporting blog, but as one half of the current main contributing team I will always be genetically disqualified from competing in the sports I write about.  The eagle-eyed amongst our readership may already have spotted this, from the occasionally over-enthusiastic retweeting and Facebook sharing angle.

In conversation, I have – on occasion and with encouragingly less frequency – had to justify why, as a man, I enjoy women’s sport.  I’m not going to pretend I was an immediate convert, but being a fairly broad-based sport fan to begin with and coming at it from an Arsenal supporting perspective, it seems to me now fairly inevitable that at some point I would get hooked on women’s sport.  In fact, it frustrates me hugely when people – frequently, though far from exclusively, men – trot out the ancient and wholly unjustifiable clichés that women’s sport is an inferior arena to elite men’s sport and question why would I choose to watch it.

On a general basis, I’ve thought hard about what a man’s place is within Women’s Sport and it’s striking that there seems to be little general consensus on this matter.  Leaving aside spectatorship for a moment, on the playing side there appears to be a growing school of thought that in sport we should ignore all gender differentiations and observe and qualify female and male sport in exactly the same fashion.  While I can see the ideal behind this, I would argue differently.  The differences between men’s and women’s sport are fundamental, even in games where the rules are exactly the same, so why should these not be embraced and celebrated?  Acknowledging that men’s elite rugby union and women’s elite rugby union have a different shape and style is something that should be clung to; recognising that watching a women’s football match will give you a different experience to watching a men’s football match is paramount to building the future of the women’s game.  Who wants to watch a match of long-ball head-tennis (West Ham vs Stoke tonight, folks) or a match characterised by preening, diving, frequently cheating superstars (any of the recent El Clasico matches – despite them being exceptionally high quality games for the most part) when you could choose a skill-based, swift pass-and-move based match (the vast majority of FA WSL games, for instance)?  We can recognise and celebrate these differences without trivialising or undermining the key precepts of equality, whether that takes the form of equality of coverage, equality of funding or equality of treatment.

This year has demonstrated that we, societally, look at male gymnasts or divers, for example, with occasionally more wonderment than we do their female counterparts and I’m convinced that this is because they work against the competitive and body norms that we associate with their chosen sports; making mention of this for women competing at the top level of sports which are traditionally associated with the men’s game doesn’t need to be a negative approach.  I’m certainly not saying we take the Sepp Blatter school of thought on this matter – or, indeed, on any matter at all – but we can draw conclusive differences between men and women competing in their own arenas of a particular sport without the approach being patronising, sexist or critical.  Fundamentally, I believe it is just as valid for a man to draw these conclusions as for a woman to do so.

Whether we do, or do not, accept that there are inherent differences in sport between the two gender blocs, it is important to note that men have a vital role to play.  This can be negative (yes, that’s you, Blatter and that’s why we booed you so loudly during the Olympics); it can also be positive.  Witness Bradley Wiggins’ funding of the DTPC Honda Team via his Wiggo Foundation, an example of possibly the highest profile competitor in professional cycling (highest profile, excepting the disgraced Lance Armstrong that is) making an active choice to improve the support given to the women’s sport which, as revealed by Victoria Pendleton post-Olympics, has been seriously underfunded in recent history.  Away from the funding field, departing British Olympic Association Chairman Lord Moynihan sparked some debate earlier in November when he publically called upon the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to accept female members, a point upon which its members have repeatedly refused since its formation in 1754; when one considers that Augusta Golf Club made its own changes to an identical rule earlier this year, the refusal of the R&A to do so is genuinely staggering and that it took a high profile male sporting figurehead to draw attention to the issue is on the one hand troublesome, on the other slightly encouraging.  Those of you who read last weekend’s Media Roundup will have noticed a small point on Patrick Vieira at the end; the current Manchester City Football Development Executive and ex-Arsenal, Inter Milan and France midfielder is basically a legend in the men’s game.  His commitment to backing up his club’s investment in the women’s club by attending matches, promoting and supporting the team is a small illustration of how men in the sport can genuinely help to raise the profile of the women’s game.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg and I make no mention of ‘in the field’ operators, individuals like Vik Akers (ex-Arsenal Ladies Football), Mark Lane (England Women’s Cricket) and Paul Thompson (Great Britain Women’s Rowing) simply because their commitment and impact on success of women in their respective sports has been so carefully ingrained in the wider movement surrounding them.

Wiggins’ support, enabled by his own achievements and profile, will go some way to ensuring that Britain’s top female cyclists are afforded the basic privileges of equal opportunity in the sport.  Similarly, one hopes that Moynihan’s comments and the ground-swell of support behind the equality movement will go some way to pressing the elementary issue of equal provision to a wider, traditionally less supportive audience.  Naturally, I’m not saying that women’s sport should be dependent upon men’s patronage to enjoy a broadening of its success and there are countless women who are making great strides in promoting the viability of women’s sport, both within and outside of the public eye.  That we, in 2012, are still having to discuss equality of opportunity is a sad reflection of how women’s sport has been viewed to date.  But perhaps working to break down these barriers is the man’s place is now; step back, support and be the cheerleader when it’s needed.  Maybe to a Coldplay soundtrack.  Maybe not.


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