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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.