Alan White's Olympic diary: Can the Olympics put an end to our terrible treatment of female athletes?

Team GB's fantastically successful female Olympians mean we surely can't ignore women's sport any longer.

British female athletes have bossed these games. They don’t quite have the numbers (at the time of writing eight of our 22 gold medals and six of our 13 silvers have been won by women or teams containing them),  but it may well be the female performances that live longest in the memory.

Think of Gemma Gibbons and the cathartic salutation to her mother against the crowd’s roar, as she secured a place in the judo final. Think of the staggering bravery of Laura Trott (of whom Jeremy Vine said: “It is impossible to believe there is cruelty in the world when you have heard [her] giggle”), born prematurely with a collapsed lung, and liable to vomit after every race. Think of the envy-inducing combination of athletic perfection and sheer bloody niceness that is Jessica Ennis.

Watching these women hasn’t just encouraged us to engage with affable, compelling characters. It’s been thrilling viewing: edge-of-the-seat, high-octane sport delivered by ferociously talented athletes at the peak of their powers. Things couldn’t be better, could they?

And yet only a few days ago, there was a dissenting voice in the form of Lizzie Armitstead, silver medalist in the women’s road race. She took the opportunity of her increased exposure to speak out: “Sexism is a big issue in women sport - salary, media coverage, general things you have to cope with in your career. If you focus too much on that you get disheartened."

It was quickly forgotten amid the joyous bonhomie. But let’s rewind a few months – to the announcement of the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011. You might not remember this, but not a single woman was named. There was an outcry, and the broadcaster was quick to blame the sports editors that made the selections. It didn’t quite have time to explain why those editors were drawn from, among others, the likes of such publications as Nuts and Zoo.

Now admittedly these magazines do encourage one form of exercise that’s improved the cardiovascular systems of many a 14-year-old, but as the ever-excellent Andy Bull has pointed out, are their editors really more clued-up than those of, say, sportsister or womensportreport? 2011 wasn’t a vintage year for British women’s sport, but it was certainly good enough for a couple of names to make the shortlist. Worth noting some of those in Team GB that are now household names had successful seasons – in particular Katherine Grainger.

Maybe the problem was less their achievements than the lack of exposure they received. It was this suspicion that prompted Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, to ask the BBC about its coverage of women’s sport. She tells me: “The fact the BBC gives more coverage to darts alone than women's sport in total is so surprising and frustrating - the debacle over Sports Personality of the Year was a symptom of a broader problem where women's events aren't covered, so aren't on the radar for those voting. The interest in watching and ability of those involved merits a fundamental rethink by all concerned.”

The coverage question feeds into something else. This report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has received the square root of bugger all interest until now, but maybe people will start to take a little more. You see, it points out that between January 2010 and August 2011, men’s sport received 61.1 per cent of commercial sponsorship. How much do you think women got? You're wrong, probably. The answer would be half a per cent. You can moan at me about how women should take a pay cut or play five sets in professional tennis (and I’ll listen, at least), but there’s no way on earth you can justify a figure like that.

And I’m trying to confine the issue to Britain here. It’s great to see female Saudi Arabian athletes, but how much pressure has the IOC brought to bear on the kingdom to let them train in their own country? In fact the more you look around the world the worse the treatment of female athletes seems, and before you know it you’re doing a passable impression of Germaine Greer watching Top Gear.

Why the bloody hell should America’s strongest woman have to live in poverty? What in the name of God is this all about? And this? Back in Britain, isn’t this just a bit disrespectful, come to think of it? Do we perhaps think this lady should have received more sponsorship? And sod this for a game of soldiers: it’s all just insidious, isn’t it? I could keep going with this stuff – for some time, actually – but at this rate I’ll end up burning all my partner’s bras on her behalf or something.

So let me conclude on a more upbeat note. Here’s Dr Creasy again: “The idea people don't want to watch women's sport has been blown apart by the audiences for our Olympians - whether on the football or hockey pitch, in the Velodrome, the swimming pool, indoors or on the track, Britain's female sporting talent is big news. I just hope the Games will finally win the case many of us have been trying to highlight with broadcasters, to change their ways."

 

Odds and Ends

 

How to lift 247kg over your head – and win Olympic Gold.

Nice little Alistair Brownlee story.

I love Aliya Mustafina, so this is the site for me.

Bryony Gordon was with Victoria Pendleton’s family for her last hurrah.

Speaking of Pendleton, here she is with Laura Trott, a few years ago. And here is Laura Trott is with Wiggo. The interviews linked to on that first picture are worth watching as well.

John Inverdale’s Wikipedia page: hacked again.

Possibly the worst Olympics headline you’ll ever read.

Boris playing the fool again.

Are you a conflicted lefty watching the Olympics? Then here’s the site for you.

Jessica Ennis and Bradley Wiggins went to see the Stone Roses.

Chris Hoy’s mum can’t look.

So going forward, that’s all good.

This will be one of the defining moments of the Games.
 

British cyclists Dani King, Laura Trott, and Joanna Rowsell with their gold medals. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times