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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue