This article titled “Do women get overlooked for sports awards?” was written by Jacqui Oatley and Martin Kelner, for The Observer on Saturday 3rd December 2011 17.59 UTC
Jacqui Oatley, BBC sports commentator
First, let’s look at some basic facts surrounding a story that attracted more than a little heated debate last week. The shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award was compiled by the sports editors of 27 national and regional publications. All of those sports editors are male. All 10 candidates on their final shortlist were male.
Now, I’m not taking the simplistic and narrow-minded view that those two facts automatically go hand in hand. That would be absurd and an insult to the integrity of the men who voted. There are clearly flaws in the voting process when retired footballer Patrick Vieira receives a vote from the Manchester Evening News for his well-paid work in the local community while world champion swimmer Rebecca Adlington misses the shortlist by one vote.
But the fact that none of those sports editors is female tells its own tale: that sport in Britain is extremely male-dominated. It always has been and always will be, largely because more men are obsessed with sport than women. But those women must still be fairly represented.
Martin Kelner, Guardian sports columnist and broadcaster
I am sorry, Jacqui, but the whole point of awards is that they go to the wrong people. Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of America’s war in Vietnam, won a Nobel Peace prize. Possibly even more outrageously, Robbie Savage is the current holder of a Sony Radio Academy award for broadcasting. And do not even get me started on the Oscars. In 1944, the year of the great witty suspenseful Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity, the best picture went to some confection starring Bing Crosby as a singing priest. You people – by which I mean women – are well out of it. And, let us be honest, we are only talking about nominations at this stage, not the award. Who wants to be nominated, just to get all dressed up, sit through the BBC’s idea of a gala occasion – a Strictly Come Dancing “special” is my guess – and watch some golfer get the big prize?
Have you ever experienced the fear and loathing of an awards ceremony, Jacqui? A hundred expensively purchased tables of dinner-jacketed losers crying into their champagne, muttering imprecations and swearing vengeance on the judges, and half a dozen oozing the smell of smug self-congratulation. Let the men have their boys’ club.
JO Martin, this is not about glitzy award ceremonies. And yes, I’ve been to the last few BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards (this year’s invitation must have been lost in the post). I couldn’t care less about who wins Oscars and Golden Globes – there’s hardly an under-representation of women in the film and television world. Maybe older women, but that’s for another day.
The award itself is not the key issue here, but it has provided an opportune excuse to raise the more serious subject about who can young girls look up to and be inspired by? If they open the lowest-hanging fruit of newspapers and magazines, they’re bombarded with images of those pantomime dames from The Only Way Is Essex – all false eyelashes, bee-stung lips and hair extensions. I’m all for glamour and entertainment, but not when those air-bag breasts obscure the view of dedicated, talented achievers such as Chrissie Wellington, Faye White, Jessica Ennis and Keri-Anne Payne.
MK All excellent role models, but sadly mostly in sports that, outside of the Olympics, nobody could give a stuff about. That is the unfortunate truth. Keri-Anne Payne’s success, for instance, laudable though it was, was in open-water swimming, not a sport that is at the heart of the national conversation.
I watch sport on TV for a living and I do not recall seeing much of the World Championships from Shanghai – a few minutes on Transworld Sport possibly – so as with the sports editor of the Manchester Evening News, or Nuts (Nuts has a sports editor?), Ms Payne would have struggled to win my nomination. Swimming for 10km in open water, beating the rest of the world, is, I grant you, a phenomenal achievement, but my view on swimming – especially in open water – is that it is less a spectator sport, more a very effective method of not drowning.
JO Very good! OK, it’s a fair cop on the open-water swimming front. I haven’t seen much of it either, but isn’t that the point? Even if swimming is not your bag, there are plenty of other sports in which British women are excelling, yet you wouldn’t know about it.
Let’s move on to my territory – football. Very much a mainstream sport. Women’s football is statistically the third most popular participation sport in England behind men’s football and men’s cricket. Yet very few people even knew the Fifa Women’s World Cup was happening this year until it actually started. Even then, few knew about it until England were knocked out in the quarter-finals on penalties, at which point they threw their hands up and exclaimed “typical”! It wasn’t typical for the women but then they wouldn’t know because they hardly ever get to read about it or watch it!
MK Women’s sport is undoubtedly under-represented in newspapers’ sports pages. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. The Solheim Cup gets a fraction of the coverage of the Ryder Cup, women’s football gets a token paragraph or two, slightly more when there is a World Cup. And that maybe is an issue worth taking up with our (predominantly male) sports editors.The current campaign, however, concentrates ludicrously on the Sports Personality of the Year, or, as the BBC likes to call it, SPOTY – with the “P” not so much silent, as otiose. When has personality ever entered a contest won twice by Nigel Mansell, for goodness sake? It is a beauty contest that goes straight on to the evening wear round. Gabby Logan, Clare Balding and other assiduous tweeters are paid by the BBC to take SPOTY seriously. We don’t have to.
JO Whether people choose to watch SPOTY is up to them. But at least they have the option. Unlike with women’s sport, which is not so accessible. And that’s precisely the problem. “It’s just one of those years,” say some. “Next year there’ll be loads of candidates because it’s Olympic year.”
Indeed. The Olympics being a tournament with events for both men and women, so journalists cover both. Sports editors are far less likely to send their reporters to women-only events. And their readers/viewers are partly to blame. If they don’t write to them to tell them what they want, why would the editor deem it necessary to redeploy their resources?
Anyway, let’s give much-maligned Peter Spencer of the MEN some credit. Had he not made such left-field selections (Vieira, Dimitar Berbatov and Yaya Touré) then Adlington may have squeaked on to the shortlist and people may still think Chrissie Wellington is the funny blonde from I’m a Celebrity…
MK There would have been a woman on my list: Sarah Stevenson, who trained for and won welterweight gold at the world taekwondo championships, while looking after her terminally ill parents. In common with the rest of the nation, I have no idea what taekwondo is, but Sarah’s dedication to it is indisputable.
The fact remains, though, if Laura Robson had reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, or Hope Powell had led England to football World Cup success, there would have been female contenders. Some sports are more popular than others, a fact we will all have to deal with until the Olympics, when we can pretend otherwise.
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