Like much of the rest of the nation, I have spent the better part of the last three weeks glued to the television watching the Olympics. Olympic missiles and other civil liberties issues aside, the Games exceeded my expectations right from the opening ceremony. One highlight for me have been the amazing women athletes - not just from Team GB but from around the world. From women footballers who - unlike their male counterparts - will take a kick in the face and cheerfully keep playing, to Kate Walsh playing hockey with a broken jaw, to Sarah Attar, the first female track and field athlete from Saudi Arabia, to Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor bagging the first Olympic gold medals in women's boxing, London 2012 has been a triumph for women's sport.
Yet of the 29 gold medals Team GB won at London 2012, only 10 went to women (and one to the mixed-gender dressage team). Team GB's men won nearly twice as many medals overall (40) as their female counterparts (22); and Britain's thirteen most decorated Olympians are still all men.
Women's sport continues to receive less funding (out of 1,449 UK Sport funded athletes, 57.2% are male) and less coverage in the UK. Football is perhaps where the contrast is most stark, with male Premier League footballers being paid up to £17 million a year whereas the FA WSL, the highest league in the women's sport, is not even fully professionalised. Overall, women's sport only gets 0.5% of all sponsorship money in the UK, a problem further highlighted by the recent revelation that only male rowers on the Olympic team received cars from sponsor BMW.
David Cameron has promised to extend funding for Olympic sport until Rio 2016. This is great news, but we cannot afford to continue with business as usual if we truly want to leverage the legacy of the Games for women in sport. Seeing women like Jessica Ennis, Jade Jones, Gemma Gibbons, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead, Zoe Smith, and Rebecca Adlington (to name only a few) perform at the top of their field, set records and win medals will have inspired millions of girls and young women to take up sport. Seeing the huge variety of female body shapes represented in the Olympics - a lot more than we would usually see on our TV screens - and seeing women confident and happy in their bodies may perhaps even counteract some of the damage the rest of the media is doing to girls' and women's confidence with endless talks of dieting and plastic surgery.
Yet getting girls into sport is not enough: the far bigger challenge is retaining them through their teenage years. As girls' bodies change and they become more self-conscious about their appearance and as different interests compete for their time, teenage girls tend to drop out of sport at a considerably faster rate than boys. Personally, I pretty much stopped doing sport at the age of 14 and didn't pick it up again until I started kickboxing in my early 20s. In the intervening years increasing self-consciousness about my body combined with PE classes which felt more like torture did more than enough to put me off the idea of exercise. I certainly never expected in my teens that I would one day get a black belt in kickboxing (I'm currently halfway to a second one, in karate), or that I would complete a half-marathon.
Additionally, while elite sport is great, the vast majority of us - male or female - will never be Olympians. It is vital to enable grassroots sport participation and highlight role models across all levels of sport. Being able to see the steps it might take to get to the top, and that success is possible at all levels is also likely to help girls stay in sport through their teens. Yet while Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead and Shanaze Reade, alongside Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, celebrated amazing achievements in cycling, London remains notoriously unsafe for cyclists, even more so for women. Members of cyclist group Critical Mass were being kettled and arrested during the Olympic opening ceremony. Addressing the abysmally bad cycling facilities in this country would be a huge step for mass participation in sport and would benefit men and women alike.
These are just some of the challenges that people like the Prime Minister, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and UK Sport need to address to truly leverage the Olympic legacy for everybody. For my part, I intend to put my money where my mouth is and watch women's sport more than once every four years when the Olympics are on. Whether it's going to see colleagues play hockey and netball, following your local women's football club, or even just watching the Women's FA Cup final, there at least one thing each of us can do to support women in sport.Suggest a correction