x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Being a sportswoman is just a piece of cake

As founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin held decidedly firm views concerning women's role in sport.

As founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin held decidedly firm views concerning women's role in sport. "Women have but one task," he decreed, "that of crowning the victor with garlands. The harsh fact remains that in sport, if no longer in any other walk of life, it remains a man's world." Try telling that to the women's teams who will use the same pitch at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai today.

And a man's sporting world it duly remained for many a long day even though women were graciously permitted to perform all manner of tasks in addition to holding the garlands in readiness; would English village cricket have prospered, I wonder, had womenfolk not been present to cut the crusts from the cucumber sandwiches, bake a cream sponge and have the kettle boiling in preparation for the tea interval? As cheerleaders to the Dallas Cowboys did the scantily-clad Dallas Cowgirls not attract a devoted fan base of their very own? Or take rugby union; for generations wives, fiancées and girlfriends were actively encouraged to sit shivering on unforgiving wooden benches in the depths of winter, to cheer wildly at the appropriate moments, to drive their heroic male partners homewards after a lengthy post-match session in the clubhouse bar, and pitch up in a pretty frock at the annual club dinner dance. And where would the fashion industry be without the free-spending England footballers' WAGS?

But, oh, how the world has changed in the 113 years since de Coubertin made his "Men Only" pronouncement. "Sacre bleu" you can almost hear the good baron splutter from on high at the prospect of Samantha Stand-Off and Penelope Prop-Forward sharing the same pitch and the same dressing-rooms as their male counterparts at the Dubai Rugby World Cup Sevens extravaganza. At the risk of incurring the wrath of my good lady (aka "She Who Must Be Obeyed"), I harbour serious doubts about this equality in sport lark.

Consider the recent Australian Open tennis championships where Rafael Nadal played for 9hr 37min (and 110 games) to overcome Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer in the semi-finals and final whereas Serena Willams spent a paltry 2hr 38min (and a mere 34 games) on court in beating Elena Dementieva and Darina Safina at the same stage of the tournament. For that - and their previous efforts - Nadal and Ms Williams were handed identical cheques, right down to the last Australian dollar.

Or how about golf, in which there is nothing to prevent Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer or Annika Sorenstam attempting to qualify for the 2009 Open at Turnberry even while the wording of the women's Tour bylaws states that you must have been born female to compete? Come on now, girls, if it is equality that you truly want, then throw open your tournaments to anyone of the required standard, irrespective of sex. If it is Ms Ochoa's right to compete in the British Open then why should Tiger Woods be prevented from teeing off in the Pink Lipstick Open should he so choose?

For the simple reason that, equestrian sports apart, women cannot compete against men with any hope of success. As the late Gene Scott, one-time US Davis Cup stalwart and founder of Tennis Week, so eloquently put it: "Women tennis players [and golfers, racing drivers, or tiddly-wink players for that matter] can't stand the pressure of playing against men. Girls are brought up from the time they are six to read books, eat candy and go to dancing classes." Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the vast majority of the female of the species would far rather watch men's golf, tennis, rugby union or whatever than any equivalent event involving their sporting sisters.

Martina Navratilova and Billie-Jean King...Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut...Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Wilma Rudolph...Dawn Fraser and Tracy Caulkins...Rosi Mittermaier and Annemarie Moser-Proll...were superstars all in their chosen fields, yet it is an undeniable fact that women's sport has yet to produce a global ultrastar to stand comparison with Ali, Pele or Nicklaus. But do not take my word for it; hark unto Alastair Johnson, senior vice president of the International Management Group (IMG) whose client list reads like the Who's Who of sport. "I think women can be relatively successful. Their problem, as I see it, is that there are only a few mainline sports in which they can actually perform on a world stage. Tennis, golf, track and field, swimming to an extent, but the more you get into women's sport, the more you realise that a lot of them are simply not commercially appealing. Volleyball, gymnastics, ice-skating, for example. There's a burst of interest after the summer and winter Olympics, but in terms of a sustained platform on which to build a reputation, it's tough for a woman.

"They do not compete at the top level in team sports such as soccer, or rugby or American football. Therefore, there are very few women's team sports which can create the profile with an audience that men's team sports do. Women in their own right are inhibited in terms of audience appeal; to be candid, one of the reasons male athletes earn a lot more money is that advertisers know that the way of reaching men is through sport, whereas the way of reaching women is through prime-time programming, soap operas or whatever."

Or could it be that women are simply too genteel, too sympathetic, too ladylike if you will, to make it to the very top? PS: Whenever the subject of women's rights is raised chez Philip, "She Who Must Be Obeyed" is wont to trill: "Any woman who seeks equality with men lacks ambition." Wise words? They ought to be - having been proffered by a man. @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae