Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sports Personality of the Year

So today, the shortlist of 10 candidates for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award was announced....shortly followed by a big media flurry about the news that there were no women on the list. Don't get me wrong - I think it's offensive and stupid that women's sport has been so egregiously excluded. But it's really not that surprising, and nor is it the worst offence against women in sport at the current time.

Firstly - let's think about how the shortlist is drawn up....by sports journalists from publications including Zoo, Nuts and the Sun - all with excellent credentials for including women (as long as they don't have any clothes on at the time and are performing sexual availability to their predominantly male readerships). Secondly, let's look at sports reporting itself, only a tiny proportion of which covers women in sport (c. 5% according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation). Just as an example, the Guardian was quick to join the debate about the shortlist, but a quick look at its sports pages shows that it includes a human interest story on Taekwondo world champion Sarah Stevenson (reflecting on the challenge of the upcoming London Olympics in the light of the recent tragic deaths of both her parents from cancer), and two further articles relating to the shortlist story (one using an image of Keri-Ann Payne, and the other showing Crissie Wellington). There are no stories on the webpage that actually report on women's sporting events and performances - not a single one that I could find. Is it any wonder, then, that the journalist "experts" that were invited to nominate sports people for the award could muster so few women for their nominations when women's sport is so far off their radar in the first place?

That a bunch of sexist editors excluded women from their nominations, then, is a news story, I suppose, but not a very interesting one; what's more important is what it signifies - that women's sport is consistently marginalised, not only in the media, but also in terms of the distribution of both public and commercial resources. For example, women's elite sport receives only 0.5% of the sponsorship market, making a professional sporting career impossible for many women in many sports which are awash with funding for men, especially if they are unwilling or unable to trade on their sexualisation within mainstream sporting and commercial culture. The effect of this to deter women and girls from engaging in sport because they are figured within the sporting world at best as visitors, and at worst as impostors.

The desperate attempts by the media today to demonstrate their outrage at the men-only shortlist through shocked opinion pieces and alternative women-only shortlists is all very well, but this fails to recognise the broader and more serious problem of the marginalisation of women and girls in sport at all levels - something which is much more serious, and depressing, than their exclusion from this particular popularity contest. There are some tremendous sportswomen out there, but there should be more, and we should hear about them more.

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