It's sad that it should take the trolling of gymnast Beth Tweddle to bring about the debate on how we treat our sportswomen. As someone who spends the majority of his time writing about and reporting on sport, this is just the latest development in a depressing picture for our female sporting stars. Fingers are often pointed at the sports desks of the nationals who rarely give any column space to sportswomen. A few pictures of Sharapova during Wimbledon is often the best you can hope for. Though, for me, the real thing holding our sportswomen back is not the national sporting press.
The sport desks of the nationals may be dominated by men, but that's not the reason why our female athletes are rarely featured. The nationals are obsessed with football, specifically the top of Premiership. If there isn't room for women it's because there isn't room for much else but Premiership football. I've lost count of the number of inspirational female athletes that haven't made it to print because they've been squeezed out by Prem News. It's sad, and it's not right, but I'm not sure it's motivated by sexism.
In my experience, the real thing holding back our female sports stars is other women, in particular female editors. I've pitched endless stories of inspirational sportswomen to the editors of women's magazines and women's sections in newspapers. The response is always staggeringly apathetic. At first I suspected it was because I was a male writer, but if that was the case we would still be seeing sportswomen written about by women. We are not. Instead we're constantly reading and listening to professional female media commentators complaining about a lack of female role models, and yet there are hundreds of them being wilfully ignored by female editors.
Jessica Ennis, perhaps our most famous female sportswomen, received more press coverage for getting pregnant than she did for anything other than winning gold in London. Too often the only time we see a female athlete grace the glossy pages of a women's magazine is when they've stuck her in heels and a posh frock with something along the lines of "Oh doesn't she look feminine for a girl with muscles." These tiresome body image features are trundled out again and again by lazy editors who use them for tokenism.
There appears to be an inherent and adherent message to women's magazines that being talented at sports is not feminine. Talent for acting, or singing is recognised and celebrated, but if your gift is for being able to run the 800m in under two minutes then they aren't interested. Instead readers are consistently shown that the only road to success is to look pretty, marry a footballer, or go on a reality show.
We should be celebrating our female athletes. These are women with drive and ambition. It's not that they were born genetic freaks and the average women has no connection to them. They train bloody hard to get to where they are, and they make many sacrifices in order to achieve it. They can inspire; not only other women, but especially women. As a journalist I've interviewed many sports professionals from varying disciplines and pound for pound I can honestly tell you that the female sports stars were the ones who inspired me the most.
For too long women's magazines have been a Victorian freak show of train wreck celebrities. They report with glee on celebrities in crisis, and they have the weirdest obsession with pointing out cellulite. They are obsessed with body image for all the wrong reasons, and then have the temerity to blame it all on a society run by men.
So I appeal to all the editors out there, at your next planning meeting please aim to feature one of our sportswomen. Tell her story honestly, and don't just stick her in a frock and ask her how she feels about her body and getting a boyfriend. I'd happily provide an interview, per week or per month, with one of a legion of our great sportswomen. What's more I can guarantee they will be far more engaging and inspiring than anyone singing in the memory of a departed Gran, or the privileged idiots of reality television.