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8 August 2016updated 12 Aug 2016 8:37am

Women drop out of sport early and rarely come back – and our society is much the worse for it

The image of sport is ready for a “pivot”, to borrow a phrase from Silicon Valley.

By Ed Smith

Like many sportsmen, I owe my career to women: in my case, my mother and my sister. Because my father loves cricket, people used to see his hand in the development of my game. Yet my mother came from a sportier family and threw more than her fair share of balls at her cricket-obsessed son.

My sister – who is nearly four years older than I am, though the gap was greater still in competitiveness – beat me at every sport and game that we encountered. When I entered professional sport at the age of 18, it felt relaxed compared to our family games of beach cricket. As for professional “sledging”, it lacked the psychological edge of a witty sibling with a gift for language.

Revealingly, although they helped me incalculably and had natural ability, my mother and sister didn’t play much sport as adults. I have often wondered why.

Women drop out of sport early and rarely come back. A recent study of women aged between 16 and 24 found that more than half gave up sport when compulsory PE ­lessons ended. Eighty-eight per cent believed that society encouraged men to play sport; by contrast, only 35 per cent felt the same about women.

There are two strands here. The first, which is the subject of Anna Kessel’s new book, Eat Sweat Play, is the loss to individ­ual lives. She wrote the book partly as a riposte to a magazine editor who said that women were “scared of the word ‘sport’”.

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Kessel draws a distinction between exercise and competitive sport. Exercise, she argues, has been increasingly legitimised as a high-status female activity. The daytime uniform of Notting Hill’s super-rich is the gym kit, with fashionista-friendly websites such as Net-a-Sporter supplying “athleisure” clothing to Generation Instagram. The trained body is now a status symbol: the gold watch has been replaced by the personal trainer.

But sport, Kessel argues, remains separate and distinct from the exercise cult, and obsessional working out hasn’t led to greater physical playfulness. Training is punitive; sport is joyful. Kessel is interested in sport as a natural aspect of self-expression. Why should men be the only ones to kick a football around in the park?

The second strand of Kessel’s subject, which I have observed in my professional life, is how sport – its culture, if you like – is diminished by being so male-dominated. Sport is not inevitably blokey and laddish. It gains little and loses much from this imbalance. In my conversation with Kessel, I’m conscious that we are approaching the same subject from different perspectives. She is wondering what women can do to break in, while I am interested in how men can do more to make sport inviting. Men and women cannot always compete against each other and share the same pitch, but sport can try harder to change the perception that men organise it only for themselves.

Part of the explanation is that women’s sport still accounts for such a small share of the sports media – 2 per cent of national newspaper coverage and 7 per cent of broadcast. Kessel’s career, as a sportswriter for the Guardian, is highly unusual.

A few years ago, I joined friends for a rare outing to one of England’s best-known golf clubs. After we finished playing, my wife joined us – or she would have done, if she had been allowed in. Instead, our group of 15 friends trooped into the “ladies’ bar” to follow club protocol. Fifteen people had to relocate so that one woman did not trespass on a male-only inner sanctum. This, in the second decade of the 21st century. Exactly what type of conversations, I wondered, would the presence of a woman prevent from happening?

When television producers pick out random pretty girls in the crowd, it signals the quietly insulting assumption that men couldn’t possibly survive a quiet passage of play without a little eye candy to top up their attention.

The image of sport is ready for a “pivot”, to borrow a phrase from Silicon Valley. Sport might attract uncivilised impulses but it has civilising consequences. True, there are strands within competitive sport that are inescapably primal. However, the cliché of testosterone-fuelled men banging their heads together like rutting stags is far from the whole story. The greater part of sport relies on – and reinforces – civilised ­society. In coming together to play games, we put aside our differences, diminishing them in the process.

Following the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in Lahore in 2009, a friend at the Foreign Office explained the political risks if international cricket gave up on Pakistan. “Cricket is one of our biggest allies in Pakistan,” she told me. “The game is one of the strongest forces for liberal, outward-looking and secular Pakistan.”

Sport is routinely described as an agent and beneficiary of globalisation. The deeper point is often missed: wider markets lead to broader minds. Sport, properly understood, is an engine of cosmopolitanism.

Although there are occasional regressive flashpoints, sport, and especially football, has played a huge role in undermining racial prejudice. The racist fan’s last resort – that black footballers had the virtuosity to attack but not the “character” to defend – was demolished almost before the theory was constructed. The internationalism of the Premier League, for all the Premiership’s flaws, is bound up with the plurality of modern England.

It is a weird and regressive mark against modern sport that so many women still feel excluded from its mainstream. Perhaps emerging sporting cultures will lead the way – I have never seen so many female fans engaged with sport as when I was in Bangalore during this year’s Indian Premier League cricket.

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue