Sunday, September 03, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Get Your Kits Off For The Lads

Lovely piece in today's Observer about women in sport. As someone who tends to drift off into a not-entirely-seemly dreamworld if the words 'Martina' and 'Hingis' are mentioned in the same sentence, I declare a completely pointless interest.

Link is Gist is - women don't get taken seriously in sport unless they're sexy, or marketed thus. Bleeding obvious? Well, yes, but it's nice to be reminded sometimes.

Here is Gail Emms, the splendid badminton player: 'they are always trying to get me into something I couldn't get one boob into, let alone my arse'. The admirable Ellen MacArthur: 'I'm not interested in wearing a dress and sitting on a car' [love that]. Emms could also have brought up the prurient, suits-you-sir nature of the BBC coverage of her endeavours with Nathan Robertson, which omitted only the line 'so come on you two, are you having it off together? How many times a night? Eh? ' (answers; they weren't; none; piss off).

Anna Kessel, the author of this excellent essay, is unafraid to air the valid viewpoint that women's sport does not measure up to men's in terms of visceral excitement. As Bill Bradshaw of the Express says, ' Wimbledon, until the women play five sets I don't think they should be treated the same as the men.' History tells one why and even then there are exceptions; anyone who has ever seen Lilian Board's heroic overhauling of Colette Besson in the 1969 European 4x400 relay is unlikely ever to forget it. And as Kessel points out, MacArthur competes against, and usually beats, men.

But these are red herrings. They don't excuse overt sexualisation. It happens with men, occasionally - remember Linford's lunchbox?

It's difficult for anyone who hasn't worked in the media to grasp how much looks count in this strange world of objectification. Admirably, my last editor refused to countenance my own (guilty) urgings as a senior staffer to use good-looking young men and women to sell copies. Look and feel is as important as any text. One journalist I spoke to actually said about a girl he fancied; 'but would I put her on the cover?'

Kessel's piece opens with the story of the squash player Vicky Botwright, who was a then-willing, now-regretting participant in what appears to be a particularly cynical marketing ploy on behalf of various parties including the sport's governing body, which used the trim Lancastrian's pneumatism to puff squash. It worked for the short time in which Botwright's website took more hits than Kournikova's. Botwright feels naive now, and can be forgiven. Everybody else behaved very badly indeed.

If she had said to Wispa, the guys who run ladies' squash, surely the only world body named for a crap 1980s chocolate bar; 'Tell you what, I'll gerremoff, and you take photos. Please' things would be different (I know, I know. 2,895,783 other issues about female sexuality and male consumption. I've not enough space). I don't particularly disdain the Sharapovas of this world - but don't force all female athletes to be Mariamorphize. Kelly Sotherton, another athlete featured, is a very fine heptathlete and also - coincidentally - a very attractive woman, but until she decides otherwise she should be in the papers for one thing only - what she does in her sport. Note to sports eds - the 'coincidentally' is the key.

France seems to have a more enlightened attitude - in 2004, the stunning gamine Emilie Le Pennec won the country's first-ever Olympic gold in gymnastics. Did the centrefolds follow? They did not. Mary Pierce is the exception that proves the Gallic rule.

It might also have helped the Observer if they hadn't run a shockingly kitsch cover on their OSM supplement showing Andriy Shevchenko in a clinch with his other half, who was wearing very little, and all of that opaque. Not an athlete, true, but there to sell a sports magazine. On page 28-29 there is a touching story of skier Chemmy Alcott losing her mother. The pic? A full-page job, all pout and soulfulness. She looks remarkably like Patsy Kensit, circa Absolute Beginners. There was, if memory serves, also pieces about the US golfer Paula Creamer and a host of sexpot chess grandmasters in the same magazine - quite recently.

Alcott's been lucky so far - the girl skis well for a Briton, and her personality should be PR gold, but she hasn't, as far as we know, been asked to give the camera a sample of her tan. Shelly Rudman, strikingly and darkly pretty, with a story any journalist would kill for (from rural Wiltshire, dirt-poor, villagers club together to send her to train, wins Olympic luge title - I mean, how weird is that?), also seems to have been left on the media shelf. Even weirder, I'd say. A case of not agreeing to loosen that dress-strap far enough?

One personal dilemma - I'd only been aware of Gail Emms as anyone except someone I'd once seen playing badminton quite well on the telly before reading this, but her stance made me want to go get her phone number. Never mind the pics.

Huh. Men. Only after one thing. Which is why we shouldn't be encouraged.

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