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Wonder Women: Why Britain's Female Athletes May Shine the Brightest in London

Posted: 25/07/2012 01:00

After the flags have come down in Regent Street, the athletes have departed the village, and the nation reflects on Britain's performance as both host and competitor, a particular observation may dawn on public and punditry alike. The extent of Team GB's medal table standing may well be due to the disproportionate success of its women athletes.

It may be questioned why a perceived gender gap should be a matter of debate at all. The Olympics has always been about tolerance and inclusivity, about overcoming all sorts of cultural boundaries, both intra-and international. Aren't we a little too 21st Century to get caught up in undue consideration of gender?

By way of a visual response, I'd draw your attention to the front page of the BBC's sport website. Of the seven sports they list in prime position at the top, only tennis can claim to have anything approaching parallel coverage for both men and women. This is not to criticise those sports fans who find the male version of any given sport more compelling viewing than the female variation; those who dream of absolute parity of popularity will find the lopsided viewing figures for men's and women's football matches sobering. But it does bring home the point that, whether judged by the yardstick of coverage, or support, or remuneration, top class sport is by no means a level playing field for the sexes.

The Olympic Games are and almost always have been different. For more than a century women have been formal competitors in the Games. That no prize money is awarded for either sex, and that male and female events are interwoven into the same competition schedule, are two structural factors that may have mollified the popular tendency towards male-dominated sports in other arenas.

Nevertheless, it would be slightly optimistic to pretend that male and female participants enjoy exactly equal treatment in a typical Olympiad. For starters, most sports have either actively proscribed or tacitly discouraged female participation for much of their Olympic history. Shooting and sailing both had 'open' gender events for many years, largely ruling women out of contention, whilst women had to wait more than a century longer to partake in wrestling.

But the tide has turned in recent games, and with the introduction of women's boxing, London 2012 will be the first games where men and women can both compete in every sport. (Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming, both technically disciplines rather than sports, are perhaps mercifully women-only.) With the advent of closer gender parity at the Games, a look at Britain's brightest prospects for gold suggests that the host nation will benefit from these adjustments. To take boxing as a first example, Britain qualified female fighters for all three weight categories with a medal of each colour in May's World Championships. A repeat performance could well see female boxers match or even surpass Team GB's seven male fighters in London.

An interesting prospect also looms in the Velodrome. Great Britain won an unprecedented seven golds on the cycling track in Beijing, and that five of these were on the men's side was testament to the unequal event programme, with seven events for men and three for women. It's all change in London, with men and women having the same five events each. Thus whilst 2008 individual pursuit champion Bradley Wiggins was naturally disappointed to be unable to be able to defend his title, Beijing double Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton, who can now aim for three golds, saw it as "a very positive step for female track cycling". Between them, Pendleton and emerging star Laura Trott will lead the charge for all five women's titles in London.

Meanwhile, on and in the water, Britain's medal surge is likely to be female-led. June's final World Cup regatta in Munich confirmed that the likeliest two crews to stand atop the podium at Eton Dorney are female, with the double scull and coxless pair crews maintaining their imperious recent form. Remarkably, given the strong tradition on the men's side, a win for either of these boats would be Britain's first ever women's rowing gold. In the Aquatic Centre, probably the host's top five medal prospects are all women, led by the all-conquering Rebecca Adlington. And whilst Ben Ainslie may be by far and away the best chance of gold in sailing, a recent 'dry run' regatta at Weymouth saw Alison Young the only British 2012 Olympian to win her event, in the Laser Radial.

In other sports, the outlook is more even for men and women. In the Athletics Stadium, Jessica Ennis is the bookies' favourite in the heptathlon, though there will be other strong challenges for track titles from Mo Farah and Dai Greene. Britain could well pick up two golds in the men's and women's triathlon, courtesy of either of the Brownlee brothers and Helen Jenkins respectively. And Team GB is likely to enjoy some success in sports that see men and women competing together. Britain's equestrian team looks strong, whilst the mixed doubles badminton pair of Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier could spring a surprise.

Overall, though, it may well be Britain's women who disproportionately propel the host nation up the medal table at the Games - and I suspect the total of 19 gold medals won in Beijing will be surpassed this time round. If Britain's female Olympians in particular enjoy the unprecedented success that their form and talent hint at, it will mean more women on the front and back pages. This will be not only an important counterweight to the trend of male-dominated sports coverage in the UK, but also a sign of the inclusive power of sport the world over.

As so uncannily parodied in the BBC's spoof comedy Twenty Twelve, 'legacy' is one of the buzzwords being thrown around as justification for hosting the costly games. If home Olympic success means that more girls are inspired to get involved in sport, and women's sport enjoys a higher public profile in the future, that's a true legacy we should all celebrate.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in The Vibe last month.

 

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