Olympic badminton player Susan Egelstaff was uplifted by the outpourings of enthusiasm for women’s sport displayed at the #BeAGameChanger Awards. But, she says, there is still much work to be done to achieve full equality in the sporting arena
If further proof was needed that women’s sport is on the rise, it came at the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards. The ceremony in London served both as a reminder and confirmation of what we all suspect: that women’s sport has caught fire over the last few years and its trajectory shows no signs of slowing down.
It is easy to arrange an awards evening; what is not nearly so easy is to create interest and engagement. The #BeAGameChanger Awards were so encouraging because the will to increase the profile, coverage and backing of women’s sport was palpable. The calibre of attendees said much about how wide the appeal of growing women’s sport reaches – former Olympic champions, current Olympic champions, MPs, heads of major companies, broadcasters, sports writers and many more. That more than 70,000 votes were cast across the award categories, a 250 per cent increase on last year, showed how connected the public were, too.
The benefits of women in sport, and sportswomen, have been written and spoken about endlessly. Changes are happening. There is undoubtedly a greater profile at a national level with both participation and spectator numbers increasing. I know first-hand the power of sport, and the benefits it brings, but there are still too many women and girls who don’t fully appreciate it.
There are many more role models for young girls to look up to now compared to when I was a kid. The dearth of female role models 20-odd years ago was illustrated perfectly on Thursday evening. When Kate Richardson-Walsh, the captain of the GB hockey team who won bronze at London 2012, was asked who her role model was when she was growing up, she said Sally Gunnell. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the 400-metres hurdler was mine, too. In probably the same way as Kate did, I remember watching Gunnell win gold in Barcelona back in 1992 and thinking how amazing it would be to compete at an Olympic Games. That Kate and I shared the same role model is, most likely, less to do with the fact that we are kindred spirits, and much more to do with the fact that Sally Gunnell was pretty much the only female athlete we had seen on television at that point.
Things have changed dramatically from those days – there are now far more female athletes who enjoy a high-profile – but their coverage is still dwarfed by what men’s sport receives. In Scotland, where I work, reams and reams of newsprint is dedicated to men’s football, the majority of which is only very marginally more interesting than watching paint dry. Yet it still dominates the sports pages. Both London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 improved the level of coverage of female athletes, and with 2016 being Olympic year, there is another opportunity to improve this further. But we all need to keep fighting to promote amazing female athletes and their inspiring stories.
The event on Thursday closed with a speech by the former NBA basketball player, John Amaechi. I have to admit I was sceptical when I heard that a man was giving the keynote speech at an awards ceremony dedicated to celebrating women’s sport. Was there not a woman in the whole of Britain who could do this job? Does it not defeat the purpose of the night by giving this important role to a man? My first thought was that Amaechi being given this honour said much about how far there is yet to go towards achieving equality.
How wrong I was. Fifteen minutes after this imposing man had taken to the stage, I had retracted every bit of my initial cynicism. His point was that if women’s sport is to achieve parity then men must step up to the mark. It must not only be the responsibility of one group to change things, it is the responsibility of everyone. Until men join women in realising and promoting the benefit and the power of women’s sport, equality is not a realistic target. Female role models are not role models for girls, they are role models for everybody. Just as I looked up to Andre Agassi, it needs to become commonplace for young boys to look up to Jessica Ennis-Hill or Johanna Konta or Kim Little. They are every bit as admirable as any male athlete, and every bit as worth trying to emulate for every youngster, not just girls.
No one in that room on Thursday night is getting complacent. There is still much work to be done before equality is achieved, or even close to being achieved. But progress is being made and there are many women and men who are determined for that to continue. That there is so much strong will to continue on this upward curve suggests to me that 2016 will be the best year ever for women’s sport. And I wouldn’t bet against 2017 and then 2018 being even better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.