With UEFA Women’s Euro 2013 in full swing, Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon triumph still fresh in our minds and the first anniversary of what was widely heralded “The Women’s Olympics” just days away, we couldn’t think of a better time to reflect upon, and celebrate, the achievements of some of the world’s most pioneering women in sport – both inside and outside of the stadium.
London 2012 was a momentous event in the history of women’s sport, for the boundaries, as well as the records, it broke: “ was the first Olympics in which women could compete in every discipline, the first with a female representative from every country and the first with a [BBC] female director of sport,” says Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of Women’s Sport And Fitness Foundation (WSFF).
But what will resonate most for future generations, is the women behind those landmark achievements – a new wave of female role models who are challenging the very nature of female celebrity.
Tibballs stresses the importance of such figureheads: “Girls need to see more female athletes, to see that women’s sport isn’t just ‘normal’ it is also aspirational and exciting.”
An increase in women's sport media coverage is a crucial part of this. There is a long way to go but there are signs of improvement - for the first time in the competition's history, each and every football game in this month's women's Euros will be aired by the BBC.
But it isn’t just the women who have struck Olympic gold or won championship titles, who are paving the way for a new generation of healthy, active women and female sports stars. There are the courageous women who have overcome substantial obstacles, in order to inspire and motivate their compatriots; the women behind-the-scenes who have gained positions of power in a male dominated world to campaign tirelessly for gender equality in sport; the women who are fighting to put female sport on the map, with improved media coverage of its events.
Below are eight such women – those whose passion and determination is changing the shape of women’s sport and how it is perceived.
Sarah Attar, Saudi Arabian athlete
Her position in the women's 800m heats may have been a distant last but it was a 'first' that prompted a standing ovation from the crowd. Atturst bravely challenged the social conventions of her country to become <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/08/sarah-attar-becomes-first-saudi-arabian-olympics_n_1755140.html" target="_blank">the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympic track and field</a>. So while Sarah Attar didn't win a medal, she <em>did</em> realise her dream - to represent the women of her country and inspire them to embrace sport. She said: "For women in Saudi Arabia, I think this can really spark something to get more involved in sports, to become more athletic," she said. "Maybe in the next Olympics, we can have a very strong team to come." Atturst, along with judo competitor, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, were the first Saudi Arabian women to attend the Olympics. The decision was a last-minute one following pressure from the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/05/25/london-2012-saudi-arabia-women_n_1544818.html" target="_blank">International Olympic Committee</a>.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Campaigner
Former Paralympian medalist, <a href="http://www.tanni.co.uk/" target="_blank">Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson</a>, 43, is world-renowned for her tireless campaigning for disabled sport as well as women's sport. Born with spina bifida, the former athlete was enobled in 2010, after winning 11 gold medals across five consecutive <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/29/paralympic-games-team-gb-women_n_1838759.html" target="_blank">Paralympics Games</a>. Since retiring from sport, Grey-Thompson is busier than ever - she is a TV broadcaster, politician, sits on the board for London Transport and the London Marathon and is the patron for numerous charities. She is never afraid to speak out on what she believes in. Most recently, in May 2013, she told the <a href="http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/" target="_blank">House of Commons Education Committee</a> that the Government did not take sport seriously and that many <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/23/disabled-schoolchildren-library-pe-tanni-grey-thompson_n_3324865.html" target="_blank">disabled children were still “sent to the library” during PE lessons</a> because “teachers don’t feel equipped or able, in many cases to integrate them properly into lessons.” “We are trying to save money because of tough economic times. The obesity bill is just going to keep rising, welfare benefits will just keep rising and, actually, sport [and] physical activity can do an awful lot to challenge and help those things.”
Clare Balding, Broadcaster & Writer
Clare Balding's incredible coverage of London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics cemented her status as a national treasure and earned her a BAFTA Special Award. It also helped to raise the profile of women in sport as well as women in the media. Balding, whose passion for sport is in her genes (her father is the Queen's former horse trainer), has a particular passion for women's sport and in her frequent interviews in the media, she <a href="http://www.stylist.co.uk/people/clare-balding-pledges-to-help-women-in-sport#image-rotator-1" target="_blank">never misses an opportunity to campaign for gender equality</a>. Not surprisingly, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/06/15/clare-balding-obe_n_3440582.html" target="_blank">Balding was given an OBE</a> in June this year.
Marion Bartoli, Wimbledon Champion
Unfortunately, Marion Bartoli's impressive victory in the 2013 Wimbledon final - in which she didn't drop a set against Germany's Sabine Lasicki - was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/brogan-driscoll/kim-sears-marion-bartoli-wimbledon-coverage-sexism_b_3567644.html" target="_blank">somewhat overshadowed by *those* sexist remarks from John Inverdale</a> and a few ignorant souls on Twitter. The fiasco has forced the world to open its eyes to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/08/wimbledon-champion-marion-bartoli-sexism-row_n_3561176.html" target="_blank">the sexism that women still have to contend with</a>. Meanwhile, Bartoli's dignified and magnanimous reaction has cast her as not only a sporting champion but an admirable role model.
Jessica Ennis-Hill, Olympic Heptathlete
Labelled the poster girl of 2012, Jessica Ennis’ 'girl-next-door to Olympic gold-medalist' fairytale has given a nation of schoolgirls a reason to believe that dreams really can come true. Smashing her personal best, beating her competitors by hundreds of points and scooping the gold medal for the heptathlon, Ennis-Hill, has a great deal to be proud of. But it is her status as a role model that seems to give the athlete her greatest sense of achievement. Recognising the importance of such role models, she said after the Olympics: “You can have lots of regulations and lots of information booklets, to get females involved in sport. But if you want girls to play sport, you have to give them role models.” However she is also aware of the obstacles: “The problem with the traditional non-sporting women in the media is that most of them are size zero. You can’t be a fit, healthy sportswoman – out there beating your rivals – if you’re size zero. “It’s hard to change but it would happen if more sportswomen were in the media, and if more coaches were women, more influential sports figures were women.”
Sue Tibballs, CEO, Women's Sport And Fitness Foundation
Tibballs, a tireless campaigner for gender equality. As the Chair of the <a href="http://www.wsff.org.uk/" target="_blank">Women's Sport And Fitness Foundation</a>, Tibballs aim is to create a nation of active women. Her latest campaign is to target the issue around women and fitness at grass-roots level by recruiting 25 schools for an in-depth analysis of how schools engage with girls to deliver physical education and to establish the perfect model. Tiball believes that body confidence is the biggest obstacle for women and sport. She told HuffPost Lifestyle: "The relationship women have with their bodies and the confidence surrounding that is the last step of women's liberation". She believe that "girls need to own their bodies and move their bodies" and have the confidence to get involved with sport. That involves removing the negative perceptions around exercise and fitness for girls. And she believes a crucial part of that is a greater exposure to sporting role models in the media.
Hope Powell, England Women's National Coach
Growing up in South-East London in the 1970s, in a world there was no place for women in football, Hope Powell stuck by her guns and challenged conventions, determined to realise her dreams. While studying to be a football coach, she knew she had a greater challenge ahead than the rest of her classmates but she wasn't deterred: "On the course I was the only female, the only black female and there I was with these guys from the professional world of football. I probably worked harder than everyone else; in that situation you’ve got more to prove." But prove herself she did. Though "disgusted" that she was unable to play football professionally in this country, she has forged an alternative career in football as the England Women's National Coach and the Team GB Olympic football team. She is currently leading the England team in the <a href="http://www.uefa.com/womenseuro/index.html" target="_blank">Women's Euro 2013</a>. In 2003 Powell became the first woman to achieve the UEFA Pro Licence—the highest coaching award available.
Nicola Adams, Boxing Champion
Nicola Adams became the first ever Olympic boxing champion when she scooped the gold for Team GB in 2012. Proving that boxing is every bit a woman's game, the champion's victory has caused a dramatic surge of interest in female boxing. Sport England figures show that before last summer's Games, where women's boxing was included for the first time, there were 19,600 females boxing once a week, compared with 35,100 now - an increase of 79%.