Monday, 13 August 2012

Britain's Women Could Inspire True Olympic Equality

After an Olympic Games which has inspired so many and so much, it is perhaps ironic that one of the most powerful messages of the past two weeks not only prompted the creation of new words below, but also a wish to eat so many from the past.

On the fifth day since the Games were declared open, British nervousness and self-awareness set in, as medals had trickled through, but as yet, no gold. Then came rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, who not only won GB's first gold of the Games, but the first ever by female British rowers. Four-years ago, Glover still harboured hopes of achieving her goal in international hockey, while Stanning was embarking on international service of an altogether different kind, with the Royal Artillery.

Two weeks on, and with a few eyes already turning to the closing ceremony, 22-year old Samantha Murray claimed a superb silver in the Modern Pentathlon, the event founded by modern Olympic creator himself, Pierre de Coubertin. Four years ago, while others in Beijing were already laying the foundations for success at the home Games to come, Murray was on the verge of quitting her sport altogether. Her on-camera message of believing in your dreams will be beamed around the world well beyond the completion of these Games.

Two contrasting, but equally impressive and memorable examples of sporting excellence and character, at the culmination of years of dedication amongst fluctuating fortunes, from Great Britain's female athletes. And they would become the perfect, appropriate bookends of GB's medal rush, and one of the biggest influences that this Games may have on subsequent Olympics, and on global sport in general.

At London, we arrived at the most gender-equal Games of all-time. A record 45% female competitors, a first Saudi woman Olympian, and both sexes in all events for the first time in history, among the statistics that had Seb Coe purring. There are still, of course, many imbalances, not least because there still exist some unjustified differences in male and female formats within certain sports. However, it is undeniable that we are heading in the right direction.

Yet this change is not purely driven by the men in suits at the top of the IOC, as if kindly providing the equal opportunities off their own backs, out of the goodness of their hearts, but crucially, by the athletes themselves. It is not that women have achieved more at these Games in terms of sporting excellence, in comparison to men, than they have in the past, thanks to increased opportunity. Women have always excelled at the Olympics, since they were given their rightful chance. Rather they have continued, despite remaining prejudices and imbalances, to slam the heavy roller on this playing field. Come Rio, we could see it truly levelled.

Because they don't run as fast, hit tennis balls as hard or lift the heaviest weights, women's sports have so often been regarded as watered down versions of the main events. Most of us are guilty. We question technical, psychological and professional proficiencies, leading us to debate about prize money and media coverage. In the early days of these Games, some even questioned the legitimacy of a woman's performance, Chinese swimmer Yi Shiwen, because she dared to swim faster than a man.

While the successes and failures of male athletes are usually only reflected upon themselves, those of our women are a reflection of an entire gender's participation in sport. A major result doesn't merely create a new champion or a sporting legend, it is then placed in the context of its impact on women's sport as a whole. British boxer Nicola Adams encapsulated this with her magnificent display on the way to gold, proclaiming it a "dream come true, a dream since I was 12 years old." More so, it will go down as the first ever gold medal by a female boxer, with women allowed to box in the Games for the first time, albeit in a slightly different format. The IOC may have finally deemed women physically and mentally tough enough to compete in Olympic boxing, but it is Adams who silenced any lingering debates. Hopefully she can enjoy the gold medal for what it is.

But perceptions could be about to change for the long-term, and if in Rio we have a 50/50 gender split, and sports mirrored in formats, perhaps the most telling contribution of all the British athletes at London 2012 occurred on the first morning of the track and field events. The Olympic stadium, with a capacity crowd over-spilling with emotion, expectation and feverish excitement, were ready and waiting for the Games' flagship events, and the pressure on the home favourites was about to be cranked up.

As Brits, we often expect brave failure from our sportsmen and women. The effort, commitment and courage will always be obvious, but at the crucial moment, we lack our foreign opponents' ability to keep emotions in-check at crunch time. Usain Bolt may have a case to claim otherwise, but the pressure on Jessica Ennis as she walked onto the track on that Friday morning, arguably supersedes that faced by any other athlete at these Games.

Like Michael Johnson in 1996, and Kathy Freeman in 2000, she has been the face of London 2012, the most visible athlete around not just the city, but the country. Simply, above and beyond all other competitors, male or female, she had to win. When watching Johnson in Atlanta or Freeman in Sydney, there was something powerfully inevitable about their victories, yet with Ennis, there would always be the nagging element of British doubt. Missing the sudden-death penalty, dropping the baton, falling at the last hurdle, when facing the prospect of a breakthrough victory - that is what we do.

As Ennis stood at the start line, she was subjected to the most sensational, spine-tingling roar from the crowd. At first she looked nervous, briefly waving, in comparison to the excited reactions of Katrina Johnson-Thompson, another joy of these two weeks.

But as Ennis settled into the blocks, we needn't have worried or hoped. She was ready. She was always ready. She didn't just win that 100m hurdles, she achieved a world-best time that would've won her a gold medal in the individual event in Beijing. It was a true champion's performance - defined not just by its quality, but by its timing. As Federer serves the aces on break points and Woods sinks the pressure putt on the last hole, Ennis was delivering her best performance at the most important moment under the most excruciating expectation, the true hallmark of a world class athlete.

Others too, have bucked the trend of British bottling and shown admirable strength of body and mind when faced with their destiny. In an era where every physical blemish is scrutinised, gold medal cyclist Joanna Roswell says her alopecia spurred her on to her moment of glory in the Velodrome. Meanwhile, the image of 25-year old judo silver medallist Gemma Gibbons offering a quiet message to her late mother at the moment of triumph, will be one of the most enduring of the Games.

We will continue to compare and contrast the male and female events, but this piece isn't quite the time and place for it. And this is not designed to take anything away from Bolt, Farah, Phelps and other men who've lit up these Games. This piece isn't about men versus women on or off the field. On the contrary, it's about the importance of continually striving for true gender equality at the Olympics, for when it has been partially granted, albeit woefully overdue, and gradually edged nearer, the response from the female athletes has been emphatically vindicating, leaving many of us, as men, rather embarrassed of the past.

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