Milestone Games for Women

By Emma Kerins

By Emma Kerins. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

The 2012 London Games have come to an end. While Australia might not have done as well as expected, it would be fair to say that the Olympic Games captured not just the imaginations of the British public, but that of the entire sporting community. Most notable, has been the experience of female athletes, both in terms of accomplishment and participation. The 2012 London Olympics was the first tournament to see women compete in every sport and it was also the first games where every competing country sent female athletes including runner Sarah Attar, who was the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to compete at an Olympics.

In what was deemed a controversial move, but also a massive achievement for the sport, women’s boxing was introduced as a recognised sport and quickly became one of the most talked about events of the tournament. Katie Taylor, four-time world champion and Irish gold medalist, became one of most prominent poster girls of the Olympics; the crowd roar at her bronze medal fight was the highest decibel level to be ever recorded at a Games.

By the time girls reach the age of 12, their sport participation rates are half of that of boys.

To put this into context, before the Olympics, women’s events were often sidelined, receiving very little attention from the media or from the public. Across the board, women’s events claim only 0.5 per cent of all UK sports sponsorship and less than five per cent of television coverage. In Australia, where sport is very much part of the national consciousness, women receive only nine per cent of the country’s media coverage. This is true even though at the 2008 Olympics, Australian women outperformed Australian men. In addition, although polls show an increased interest in sport since the London Games, the reality of female participation in sporting activity is somewhat bleaker. At the age of eight, boys and girls are roughly at the same level in terms of participation (about 60 per cent). By the time girls reach the age of 12, their sport participation rates are half of that of boys.

This data reveals a problem with both women’s participation in sport and also the coverage and funding they receive. However, we also see that the London Olympics has had a positive impact on both the perception of female athletes and also on women’s attitudes towards sport. This is undoubtedly a good thing. The benefits of more people engaging in physical activity do not need to be elaborated on. Closing the gap between men’s and women’s sport in terms of publicity and funding is also a win in terms of gender equality. On a broader scale, this change in attitudes is of important cultural significance.

the London Games has brought us a generation of young women whose physical ability rather than physical appearance is what’s praised

In recent years, the over-sexualistaion of women – particularly young girls – has been apparent. This evolution has been blamed, amongst other things, on the growth of the porn industry and celebrity culture. This has subsequently impacted on the types of women who dominate the media. Hollywood, the red carpet, idolisation of celebrity and the obsession with appearance are all factors that have exacerbated the pressures put on women to achieve a particular ideal of physical perfection.

To clarify, I do not wish to lament how shallow or superficial our society has become. There is nothing wrong with taking an interest in celebrity culture or desiring and idolising those who seem so much more beautiful than us. That is not harmful behaviour in itself. The problem is that this culture is all that seems to be on offer for young women of the 21st century. In our society, the only women left to uphold as role models are the Kim Karadashians and the Rhiannnas.

The noblest ambition a woman can have, even today, is to exploit her appearance for fame and money, and if that fails, marry into it. The absence of any other type of dialogue relating to female achievement is worrying. This is what is harmful. It’s the effects of this poor role modeling that filters down and impacts not only on the self-perception and mental health of young women, but also their own goals and ambitions. This ultimately feeds into a culture of underachievement at the highest levels and occupational segregation across the board. Pigeonholing female ambition like this narrows the ability of young women to see past what they think society expects them to be, rather than seek to be whatever they want to be.

So what does this have to do with the success of women at this year’s Olympics? Celebrity culture saturates our media and features only women who receive the most exposure and hold the most cultural currency. This very limited pool of people don’t promote any way of living that could be deemed healthy for a young generation to aspire to. In contrast, the London Games has brought us a generation of young women whose physical ability rather than physical appearance is what’s praised. Of course, there have always been tremendous female athletes, but this summer we have seen a shift in focus. We see the media promote and take pride in these young women for their skill, their hard work and their talent, rather than what they look like. Women like Katie Taylor, Sarah Attar and Jessica Ennis are who we should now look to. As quoted form an article in the British newspaper The Observer, it’s “Bye bye Karadashians” – a new generation is emerging.