On 25 August, the World Athletics Champion ships begin in Osaka. Britain will be without their one solid gold medal hope: Paula Radcliffe. The burden of hope in the women’s events now rests almost entirely on Jessica Ennis, a 21-year-old heptathlete from Sheffield. The 2012 Olympics remain a rallying call for stars for the future, but the current reality is that, in the three top-profile women’s sports – athletics, tennis, golf – British women rarely occupy a place at the top table.
Britain is still limping along behind the pack, and this might have something to do with there being alarmingly few sportswomen to choose from. A number of recent reports, by UK Sport, the Women’s Sports Foundation and Sport England, have confirmed the news. In Britain, 40 per cent of girls drop out of all sporting activity by the time they are 18. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, almost double the proportion of men to women take part in sport; and half of the women in the UK do little or no physical activity at all.
Can this really all be blamed on a lack of role models? Three of the athletes commanding the highest appearance fees in the world – Radcliffe, the Swedish heptathlete Carolina Klüft and the Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva – are women. This year, Wimbledon finally joined the other grand slams in offering equal prize money to women, even as Maria Sharapova was exposing the lie that women’s tennis is somehow “less valuable” than the men’s game by outearning the male number one, Roger Federer, by $5m.
Yet elite athletes and industry bodies are voicing fears that sport is losing touch with an entire generation of young women in the UK. Since retiring from athletics after her 2004 Olympic triumph in the 800m and 1,500m, Kelly Holmes has worked in various mentoring roles with young women, including the Norwich Union Girls Active scheme, in which she travels the country promoting sport, and her assessment is stark.
“Teenage girls are disengaged from sport,” she says. “They lack confidence and don’t think it’s for them.” The issues keeping them out can be surprisingly simple ones. Sports kit, in particular, can leave them feeling either sexually exposed or mannish, while changing rooms are intimidatingly male environments.
Gail Emms, who won the mixed doubles title with Nathan Robertson at last year’s World Badmin ton Championships, has also noticed a change in female attitudes to sport. “I’m worried about girls in school right now,” she says. “I had a great peer group, my friends were all in the hockey team, and I lived in my PE kit. It didn’t feel wrong.” But being a sporty girl has become uncool. “When you look at results in British sport, we’ve got great role models – Ellen MacArthur, Paula Radcliffe – but it’s not getting through to young girls,” says Emms.
This isn’t merely a teenage crisis, however. In primary schools, as a study by Goldsmiths College, London has shown, the large majority of playgrounds is taken up by football games played by boys, with girls left standing and watching from the sidelines. Girls who do join in are often not accepted by the boys, and are labelled tomboys by the girls. By the age of seven, 40 per cent of girls will say they are not “sporty”. The centuries-old stereotype that sport is not for girls – that it is, crucially, unfeminine – remains.
In the present climate of body-image paranoia, it thrives. Women are far happier to walk, swim, or visit the gym – the three most popular physical activities for females over 16 – than to get involved in a sport that may bulk up their physique. Emms trains young badminton hopefuls, and says that even some of her protégées struggle with issues of body shape. “They say, ‘I don’t want to get too muscly. I don’t want my legs to look too big.’ When I used to go on training camps, we worked so hard that some of us would be sick by the side of the court. For a lot of them today, a lot of it’s more about the boys who they might meet there.”
Popular culture reinforces those attitudes. The rise of the WAG offers girls a female role model more suited to 1950 than 2007 – a woman whose worth derives from her husband’s fame, and whose greatest calling is to spend his cash – and has reignited the sense that the best place for a woman in sport is on the arm of a man. Sally Gunnell, Olympic champion hurdler, says she finds the phenomenon “quite scary”. “It’s very sad that WAGs is what young women aspire to be. I think of all my friends in my athletics club who gave up the sport when they were 15. How do we get them to carry on? It is a big, big battle. So much talent is lost because it’s considered more important to have boyfriends.”
Why is there no backlash? Because those who run sports in the UK are often content for them to remain male-orientated and male-driven. Sue Tibballs took over as chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the organisation seeking to improve opportunities for women in sport, last year. Her background is in equality campaigning and she was shocked by what she encountered.
“In terms of gender equality, sport has simply been left behind,” she says. “The entire sector is completely ossified. We know from our research that the biggest barriers are not practical; they’re psychological and social. We’re making it our goal to challenge that.”
It doesn’t necessarily require grand gestures. As Kelly Holmes has discovered, sometimes it takes something as simple as allowing girls to make over the changing rooms. Feminising sports clothing is another simple step that could attract more women, and seems already to have helped raise the profile of top-flight netball, which is now being broadcast on Sky. Offering a greater choice of school sports for girls is another. “At the moment, there is not much creative thinking going into this challenge,” says Tibballs. “It’s enough just to tick the box that says you have girls’ toilets.”
One of the biggest challenges will be to persuade society to take women’s team sports more seriously. Football, the most popular female team sport in the UK – which comes in at number 13 on UK Sport’s list – is still only played by 1 per cent of the population. “Women are written off as sports participants and all the energy gets directed into pools and the gym,” says Tibballs. “We need to think about how we make team sports more appealing for women.”
Even where team sports are growing, poor governance and cultural prejudice remain. Women’s football has grown rapidly among girls: the number of teams for under-16s has risen from 80 to 8,500 in the past ten years. Yet its elite arm is crumbling, leaving those girls who do take enjoyment from the sport nowhere to pursue it into adulthood. In the past year, Manchester United, Sunderland, Fulham, Bristol City and Charlton Athletic have all disbanded their women’s teams. With no paid staff, most women’s clubs are run on roughly £40,000 a year – the cost of one week’s salary for a middle-of-the-road Premiership player – but club executives have claimed that such costs are unsustainable. Meanwhile, the FA talks of equality but moves towards it at a glacial pace.
“It has taken them years to agree to something as simple, and as crucial, as allowing girls to continue playing mixed football to the age of 11,” says Tibballs. “There’s a real failure of leadership in the women’s game as a whole.” Only in football could the suggestion that a woman was incapable of doing certain jobs – refereeing, commentating – have provoked a genuinely open debate. “There is a culture in football that wants to maintain its male-only preserve. It has been a space for men, and I’m sure it’s been much enjoyed. But it can’t carry on like that.”
The issue of funding parity remains key. Public money for sports is channelled overwhelmingly into sports that men play – football, cricket, rugby – while most girls, heading for the gym or the local pool, pay for their own exercise. In the United States, sport addressed the issue 35 years ago with a piece of legislation known as Title IX, which in effect requires all educational institutions to spend the same amount of money on women’s sport as on men’s and is credited with the flourishing of a generation of athletes.
Does Britain need a Title IX? Gerry Sutcliffe, the sports minister, thinks not, and points to the Gender Equality Duty that came into force in April this year, which requires all sports bodies to promote their opportunities to everyone in a relevant way. Only a legal challenge can enforce it, however. “Increasing participation rates is one of my main goals,” he says. “A lot of it will be about funding, but it’s really about trying to create cultural change.” For him, the media must play an important role in “taking women’s sport more seriously”. A mere 5 per cent of all media sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport.
Perception, says Holmes, is everything, and that’s how she persuades the most disenfranchised teenagers to give sport a try. “When you’ve changed the mindset of the ‘cool’ girl in the class, you’re going to see the rest changing, too,” she says. “What better way for them to look good than to do sport and feel good about themselves as well?”
$18m 2005 pay for highest-paid sportswoman, Maria Sharapova
$87m 2005 pay for highest-paid sportsman, Tiger Woods
571 number of professional female athletes in UK
832 number of professional male athletes in UK
40% of British girls drop out of all sports activity by age 18
74% of all UK sports committee and board members are men
5% of all media sports coverage is of women’s sports
18% male v female salary gap in the sports industry