I grew up with a Dad who worked in football. I was the first female born into the family in quite a number of years, and the boys – well they were introduced to football from an early age. Like most kids, I wanted to be just like my Daddy – and that meant I wanted to play football.
When I got to primary school, the boys in the playground told me and my friend Tracey (who was probably the best at sports out of anyone in our class -male or female) that we couldn’t play football with them because we were girls. Kids will be kids, and we were mostly at that stage were the other sex is apparently ‘gross’ and ‘icky’. But the main injustice that sparked for me was when I was around 7 (I think) and our primary school teacher announced that our school was starting our first sports team – a football team! I was sooo excited. And then I got told I wasn’t allowed to join because it was only for the boys.
Our school only provided a sports team for boys to join, but nothing for the girls.
That may have been when I started campaigning for a pupil council so we could change things like that. Sadly, the ‘boys only’ football team remained so while I was there. The same happened in high school. There was a rugby team for the boys, a hockey team for the girls. About a year into high school they introduced a football team – only for the boys. Despite the fact we had some talented female football players in my school (one of them was in my class – even the boys wanted her on their team during the football module of the hideous compulsory P.E. lessons I endured for four years of high school).
Like what the actual ding dong heck?! This was the 90s people. Hadn’t feminism already been through a few waves by this point?
People have asked me once again during this Olympics – “Laurie, how do you know so much about gymnastics?” They assume I grew up a gymnast.
I’ve never done gymnastics in my life.
I mean, I had a few lessons as part of P.E. at school which involved doing forward and backward rolls, attempting handstands and I think at one point trying to somersault through the air and landing on a crash mat. But I was pretty terrible.
But I fell in awe of gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics. They could do all the things I couldn’t as well as dance. Only throughout the year, it was hard to find coverage of the competitions.
Over the years I’ve been disappointed with the lack of coverage. One year just before one of the British gymnasts won a Bronze medal at the European Championships, the tv coverage suddenly stopped halfway through her routine and switched to a football pundit show. I, along with the British Gymnastics community were spitting mad (especially when it turned out we missed watching a medal performance from one of our country’s gymnasts!)
And so I’ve been the one trying to find live feeds online, befriending sports journalists attending competitions, hounding them for updates and scores and details. When there’s a great achievement it rarely makes the sports homepages, and definitely not the back page of the papers along with the rest of a few select sports where only the men who compete get reported on.
That is annoying enough.
But then there is the sexism. Whether it’s journalists and commentators who simply haven’t done their homework or commentators who spend their time making comments about how a woman athlete is looking or referring to her as a ‘girl’ or ‘lady’ (have you ever heard a male footballer being referred to as a ‘gentleman’ while he is on the pitch?). The 19 year old gymnast is ‘so cute’. The six time gold medallist who hasn’t quite taken in what just happened is described as looking to his four time gold medallist fiancee “wondering what’s for tea”. Apparently women don’t want to win enough if they are having to pose for pictures with toothpaste because that company is giving her an endorsement. Which is weird, because I’m sure I saw two time Gold medallist man gymnast posing with a car on instagram, and it didn’t seem to affect his performances. And man, that running guy (what’s his name again? 😉 ) he seemed to be on my TV a lot trying to get me to switch broadband companies, and seems to pose for a lot of pics – even taking pictures of his mates with journalists’ cameras during the Olympics – but I think he just defended his Olympic title too.
What is most annoying is the people that argue that “well, they didn’t mean to be sexist”. Well perhaps the woman who wrote about how difficult she found it when her white daughter brought home her black boyfriend “didn’t mean to be racist”. But it doesn’t take away from the fact…IT IS.
And we need to address it. Because it starts with a comment…and some cat calling…then turning a blind eye to women getting groped on public transport..and it can lead to us growing adults who believe it’s ok for men to rape a woman because marriage means sex on demand.
So back to that question everyone keeps asking me: why do I know so much about gymnastics? Because in the lead up to London 2012, I made a concerted effort to do everything I could to give the journalists and spectators some background on the amazing stars we had that nobody else had been watching in the previous four years. Kohei Uchimura, the best male gymnast that’s ever lived. Oksana Chusovitina, who won medals before most of her competitors were born. The British men’s team that everyone had assumed wouldn’t have a chance to place in the medals. So I created their wikipedia pages, updated ones that already existed – and with others created medal tables and stats so that people could easily look back and know if someone had won 3 consecutive All-Around Golds before with just a few clicks.
It’s also why I wanted to make sure at the end of my placement last year, all four of our heroines had their own wikipedia pages. Priscilla Bright McLaren was not just ‘the wife of the Lord Provost’.
And to the men like Andy Murray and Adam van Koeverden who are joining the feminist movement and calling out the sexist commentating and reporting… THANK YOU! Welcome to the club working for gender equality!
On a side note, I do have hope. My friend’s daughter started primary school 7 years ago today(ish). I still remember when I saw her after her first day, her excitedly telling me about the school football team she was joining. And my honourary nephews? They do gymnastics.