Revealed: the true scale of how women's sport was left behind in lockdown
Posted: Thu, 25 Mar 2021 22:03
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is leading calls for the Government to act on gender inequality in elite sport, after a Telegraph Sport investigation found that women's sport has lost 664 more days than men's during the pandemic.
A year on from the first lockdown, Telegraph Sport compiled data on how long each major women's sport was shut down because of Covid compared to the male equivalents.
Looking at domestic leagues and England international teams in football, rugby, cricket and netball, and international competition in tennis and motorsport, the main findings showed a stark disparity between men's and women's sport:
- Elite women's sport was out of action for a total of 2,191 days, while men's sport lost 982 days across the comparable leagues and teams during the pandemic.
- Not including netball (which has no male equivalent), women's sport amassed 664 more days of inaction than men's sport did.
- Apart from the women's WTA tennis tour, women's teams and leagues were slower to return than their male counterparts across every single sport Telegraph Sport analysed.
- In football and rugby, women's domestic teams also started Covid-19 testing much later than their male equivalents. Testing protocols were introduced for women's Premier 15s rugby a whopping 199 days after they were for the men's Premiership teams.
Last May, as fears mounted that men's sport was being prioritised over women's - with a number of women's leagues abandoning their seasons - sports minister Oliver Dowden pledged to ensure that women's sport retained its progress.AdvertisementAdvertisement : 15 sec
In the wake of the findings, Grey-Thompson, Women in Sport and shadow sports minister Alison McGovern have called for meaningful government action.
"Nobody can argue when you see the numbers like that," 11-time Paralympic champion and cross-bench peer Grey-Thompson said. "It's scary how easy it is to wipe out women's sport. The numbers highlight the way different rules have been applied, which comes back to men's sport bringing in more money than women's sport. That's why decisions were made the way they were."
Grey-Thompson said she would be in favour of legislation similar to Title IX - the 1972 landmark law in the United States which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in college sports - to be considered in the UK for elite sport, in order to hold governing bodies and leagues to account.
Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of Women in Sport, said "government interventions" were key at this stage, adding: "Given the scale and longevity of these gender inequalities, we would support much greater government investment in women's sport as well as interventions in the market... It will take more than gradual change to get back on track."
When presented with the findings, the shadow minister for culture and sport, Alison McGovern, also called for Dowden to reassess how government emergency loans and grants were being allocated during the pandemic.
"For too long, aspiration and warm words has not materialised into equality. I asked the Minister to make sure that money they were allocating was spent equally amongst women and men back in November. I think even at this late stage, the government could review what it's doing to make sure that that the gap is closing and not widening."
A DCMS spokesperson said the government was "absolutely committed to supporting women's sport": "The past few years have seen fantastic progress, and The Telegraph has been at the heart of this. We are alive to the pressures that women's sports are facing.
"Women's professional football, rugby, netball and basketball have benefited from the Sport Winter Survival Package, backed up by women's sport being prioritised for 250,000 free Covid-19 testing kits made available to elite sports, to get them back playing and support their continued visibility. We are clear that women's sport must not take a back seat again."
Women's sport has been pushed to the margins in a time of crisis and it must be addressed
By Oliver Brown, Chief Sports Writer
If you want to see how even the noblest promise can be unmasked as a platitude, Oliver Dowden's Downing Street briefing of May 30 last year takes some beating.
"Given the deserved momentum that had built up behind women's sport after football, cricket and netball World Cups," the Culture Secretary declared, "I will be working hard with the sports minister to make sure we don't lose any of that progress. Visibility matters, and our daughters deserve to see female athletes on the main stage."
So far, so laudable, especially when Dowden throws in the "our daughters" line as an illustration of hand-on-heart devotion to the cause. But as the nation awakes today to the bleak one-year anniversary of lockdown, his words come across as the hollowest soundbite.
The "main stage"? The margins to which female athletes have been shunted over these past 12 months would barely qualify as off-Broadway. Over a period in which the England men's football team have played nine internationals, the women have contested one friendly against Northern Ireland at their St George's Park training base.
So much for harnessing the energy of their World Cup semi-final in 2019, one that drew a UK television audience of 11.7 million. The sequel has been akin to following an Olympics with a village fete.
While the traumas unleashed by Covid are universal, it is a delusion to suppose they have been equitably shared in sport. Take rugby, where there is a desperate scramble to stitch together a Lions summer against South Africa at all costs, regardless of whether Johannesburg and Cape Town are swapped for Edinburgh and Cardiff, but where the women's World Cup, originally scheduled for New Zealand in July, has already been punted back to 2022.
Such, sadly, is the philosophy that has taken root around the financial exigencies of the pandemic. When there is a fair wind blowing, women's sport is relentlessly championed. But once the deep freeze descends, it is the first to be discarded, a dispensable luxury.
Claire Rafferty, the former England left-back who made more than 100 appearances for Chelsea, does not disguise her disdain for that imbalance.
"There has always been the situation, and there will be for the foreseeable future, of women's sport being the tick-box, the addition, the pain in the backside, rather than something that is respected in the same way as for men," she says.
"As a consequence, it's the first to go whenever there are any financial difficulties. It's almost a 'nice-to-have'. The challenge is, can women's sport stand on its own two feet without the support of the bigger entities that surround it?"
In the time of Covid, that question has been fraught. Where the Premier League lost 82 days to the virus, the Women's Super League lost 167. Men's cricket was mothballed for 108 days, the women's for 183. While the Formula One season was suspended for 16 weeks, the all-female W Series was abandoned for an entire season.
Here, there are some crucial structural differences: one is a multibillion-pound global motor racing championship entering its 72nd year, while the other is an embryonic project propped up by private equity. But their different fates shine a light on how Covid has reinstated sport's gender gap.
In times of crisis, sport will turn to its reliable revenue-generators: namely, it presumes, the men. It is a crude approach of nourishing the core while neglecting the extremities. This suggests, I put it to Rafferty, that recent progress, from the Lionesses's record viewing figures to the successes of England's netballers, is built on fragile foundations.
"I think you're right," she says. "My biggest frustration is that there is so much hype around the largest tournaments, and then it all falls off a cliff when it comes to the domestic leagues. I want to see the Lionesses' fan base supporting their local teams. It takes a commitment from the general public to follow up."
It is not only women's sporting livelihoods that have been eroded to a disproportionate degree. In some cases, even their health seems to be an afterthought. In January, as UK Covid numbers spiralled, Kristine Sommer, the United States rugby international then playing for Harlequins, asked why there were no rigorous testing arrangements in place in the Premier 15s.
"The main thing that upset me was the discrepancy in protocols between men's and women's sport," she says. "We were not elite professionals, we were not in protected bubbles, therefore we did not receive any testing other than checks to see if we had symptoms. But a lot of athletes who test positive are asymptomatic. That was the tipping point for me. It felt surreal, that the reason I wasn't being tested was financial."
The testing fiasco, ultimately, had a role in forcing Sommer to return to Colorado. "I had a lot of battles," she says. "No one in the league was making a decision. In the end, it was too much of a risk to be in that environment, with the potential to catch Covid, when I could wait a couple of months to be in a more restricted bubble with the US team by March."
Hers is a glaring example of how sportswomen's basic needs have been forgotten as the UK's Covid calamity persists. But it is far from the only picture of systemic inequality. Last May, Clare Connor, the England and Wales Cricket Board's director of women's cricket, acknowledged that some England women's fixtures would have to be sacrificed.
Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, as the men's team edged back into action, Stuart Broad was joking on Instagram about being given a women's toilet at Trent Bridge in which to change. As the women languished on the periphery, the men were moving into their physical quarters.
It is a graphic reminder of how being a female athlete in this vast crisis is often to be disregarded, labelled non-elite and financially cut off. If a year of lockdown is not to wipe out a decade of advances, these warped realities need correcting, and fast.
Article Source: The telegraph