All hail our Olympic heroines who conquered sexism and the world

Powered by article titled “All hail our Olympic heroines who conquered sexism and the world” was written by Zoe Williams, for The Guardian on Friday 10th August 2012 17.41 UTC

I was on Poplar High Street, on my bike, way too hot and late, and it looked like I was going to be late for the flyweight finals in the women’s boxing. Stupid, amateur’s error – there are only eight minutes of fighting. If you miss even the first round, that’s like walking into Macbeth when everybody evil has already turned evil.

If this had been an anxiety dream, its subtext would have been that someone had stolen my personality and replaced it with one that was completely different. Two weeks ago, I thought people who liked to watch women hitting each other were perverts. But women’s boxing has been one of many stunning revelations this past fortnight. I didn’t need the Olympics to tell me that public life would be better if it had more women in it. But I didn’t realise until now how that would actually look, if we celebrated and lionised and listened to and discussed the two sexes in equal measure. It’s a different world.

It is two weeks tomorrow that Lizzie Armitstead scored the first medal for Team GB, a silver in the cycling road race, an emotional counterweight to the disappointment of the men’s, in which Mark Cavendish turned out not to be the gold certainty everyone had hoped.

Since then, there have been more dramatic wins. There was Jessica Ennis‘s final run of the heptathlon, pictured below, where she gave it everything she had – figuratively going for gold, when literally she had already got gold and could have taken it easy.

Midweek, there’d been Kath Grainger‘s epochal rowing gold (with Anna Watkins), in which people finally stopped saying “She could be the female Steve Redgrave” and started saying, “She’s just really amazing, OK? She’s not the female anything. She’s the Kath Grainger.”

There was the heart-wringing lightweight double scull gold, when Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland eschewed the light, Chris Hoy-style welling up, in favour of full-on crying their eyes out.

There was Laura Trott (only 19) becoming the third British woman ever to get two gold medals in the same Olympics, soon joined by Charlotte DuJardin, adding an individual gold to her team gold for dressage.

Equestrianism, that most unisex of sports, brought us heroines of all stamps, the visionary young ones like DuJardin (27 is very young in dressage, although she’s been riding since she was two, so in horse years is in her late thirties) alongside Mary King who, at 51, was representing Britain for her sixth Olympics.

Victoria Pendleton became the (yet another) pride of British cycling with her gold in the kierin and gave one of the most thrilling performances of the games in the women’s sprint. She looks a bit like Martine McCutcheon, and it struck me how bizarre it was that someone who used to be on Eastenders 15 years ago is more famous than one of the greatest cyclists this country has ever produced. No offence to McCutcheon, who seems nice.

Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark surprised everyone with a silver in sailing, the surprise being that they didn’t get gold. Which of us knew we had the best female sailing duo in the world?

To return to Armitstead: in the moments after her win, the bit where, still panting, you can ask them what they really think and there’s a chance that they’ll actually tell you, she was forthright.

“The sexism I have encountered in my career can get quite overwhelming and very frustrating,” the 23-year-old said. “You just get used to it, though, and there’s not much I can do it about it now as an elite athlete. But I certainly hope to after my career is over.”

She was not talking only about the size of the women’s race, in which a risible 66 places are open (compared to 145 in the men’s event, and the 150 competitors women typically race). She was also talking about pay, exposure, attention – she was making the point that every female athlete in this country could make. Women are routinely ignored in almost all sports – their football, rugby and cricket may as well not exist. In tennis, they are mainly used as splash candy for picture editors looking for short skirts. The media concentrates on the good-looking ones to a shameful degree, then turns round when they don’t win and says, “See? Just pretty faces” as if this proved that women en masse couldn’t play tennis.

Women with a powerful build are slated for looking like men, as if this negated their excellence. You’ve got it all wrong, girls. What’s the point of being the best in the world if you can’t wear spaghetti straps? As a woman, you will get more attention and probably walk away with more money by having a one-night stand with a footballer than you will if you give your life to playing the game of football.

It was under these conditions that all these Olympians trained – in a culture that routinely ignored them or, if events gave it cause to pick them out, would be as likely to call them ugly or wonder whether they’d been bitching about their teammates as to marvel at their achievements. They put up with all this, and they trained anyway, and they came out, and they won.

I wonder if it’s any accident that British women particularly excel in the combat sports: Gemma Gibbons taking a silver in judo, Karina Bryant getting the bronze, Jade Jones winning gold in taekwondo and Nicola Adams winning the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded for women’s boxing, when she fought a stunning, apparently effortless fight against Cancan Ren from China, on Thursday.

Women’s boxing is this great feminist’s dilemma – we all got behind women wearing shorts, because some warhorse somewhere was trying to make them wear skirts. Yet right-thinking people had to underline that they found it abhorrent to see any woman being beaten up, even if they were doing it to each other. A feminist middle-line was “I don’t like boxing, male or female, but if there’s going to be a male category, I’m glad there’s a female one.”

It’s worth going to see it, before you arrive at an opinion. It’s not like men’s boxing. It doesn’t work by the glorification of savagery. When they come to the press zone afterwards, there isn’t a mark on them. It’s tough but exquisitely graceful, strategic, instinctive, engaging; if you’ve ever enjoyed the adroitness and finesse of ballet, but found it wet, lacking in drama and much too long, boxing is for you. It’s typical of the way women are seen in sport that we’ve had this entire conversation about whether it’s a forward or backward move for women to be allowed to box, with nobody saying that it might be the female variant of this sport that keeps it alive.

Let’s make this the legacy of the games – not making athletes volunteer at schools, when their life’s work is practically done on a voluntary basis already; not making more cycle paths; not having a fight with teachers about whether they encourage competition enough. Let the legacy be that women are brought out of the shadows of sport, that their excellence is recognised.

It’s not what the Greeks would have wanted. Sod them. Let’s do it anyway. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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