When 2017 began, no one was expecting it to be a stand-out sporting year. With the hype and golden echoes of the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics still chiming in our ears, and the excitement of the Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Hockey World Cup all on the horizon for 2018, a space was left to be filled in 2017.
All rise then, women in sport. This year, without a doubt, has been a defining moment for women’s sport in this country. And what a year it has been. From Johanna Konta storming into the Australian Open quarter-finals in January and Katie Archibald claiming three national titles on the track, to the glorious world-conquering performances of the England cricket team, the para-athletes at London 2017, and the history-making England footballers at the European Championship. To pick one outstanding performance would be a crime so, on the eve of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards, here is The Mixed Zone’s sports review of 2017, presented by Katie Smith
Since the triumph of GB’s hockey team at Rio 2016, we have seen the dawn of a new era for women’s team sport. And this could not have been demonstrated more clearly than on a cool summer’s day at Lord’s, when England’s beat India in an electrifying final to clinch the Cricket World Cup. It was a triumph in a sporting sense with the climax of the tournament coming down to the final few overs and woman-of-the-match Anya Shrubsole holding her nerve and taking the last wicket with only nine runs to spare. But it was also a triumph in a wider, symbolic sense. It was the first time that a women’s game had sold out at Lord’s (with a further 100 million watching on television) and had young girls and boys gripped by the quality and intrigue of the game. The final was not defined by flowery, hollow rhetoric; it was a game of magnificent cricket. Pure and simple. The setting of Lord’s, ‘the home of cricket’, and one of the most iconic sporting venues in the world, was also a symbolic invitation for the women’s game to be accepted into the fold. Until 1999, women had been banned from the hallowed Long Room, and yet here they were at the centre of an almighty sporting battle. Former England captain, and now ECB head of women’s cricket, Clare Connor, was overjoyed. “I jumped in the air and then burst into tears.” She rated the occasion even greater than winning the Ashes in her playing days. And for one reason. “The significance,” she said. She was not wrong.
Perhaps one of the hardest categories to ‘judge’ with countless stand-out performances throughout the year across a range of sports and platforms. However, for Elise Christie, whose triple world crown was the product of an outstanding racing performance as well as a personal mental battle, 2017 has been integral in rebuilding her confidence going forward into the Winter Olympics in 2018. The Scottish speed-skater hit rock bottom after the last Games in Sochi in 2014 when she was the target of vitriolic twitter abuse from South Korean skating fans who blamed her for their athletes crashing out of races. Christie was overwhelmed by the venomous attacks when she was already heartbroken at being disqualified in both her disciplines. Yet she found strength from mentor and former England rugby player Will Greenwood, who encouraged her to see the power derived from not being afraid of failure. “This year,” she said, “the only big change I’ve made is that I’ve chosen that I don’t mind failing. I don’t want medals, I want to win. So I’m risking to win and racing more aggressively. In front you’re more likely to be attacked and lose a medal, but I wasn’t bothered about that anymore.” Now a three-time world champion, a Sports Personality nomination under her belt and bucket-loads of confidence two months out from the Olympics, Elise Christie has proved that it is not always the hours in the gym that count, but the way you perceive yourself that sculpts the perfect performance.
YOUNG ATHLETE OF THE YEAR – BETH SHRIEVER
BMX rider Beth Shriever began 2017 in a whirlpool of doubt after UK Sport announced funding cuts to the women’s programme. Could she find sponsors? Would she make it to the necessary races? How would she balance elite sport and school without the support she was currently getting? Even with a million worries on her mind, and A Levels looming in the summer, Beth Shriever did what she does best and just raced. And in the dying seconds of a thrilling BMX world championships final in Rock Hill, USA, she snatched the rainbow jersey and became the world junior champion. The 18-year-old said: “I’ve never achieved anything like this in my whole BMX career. Words can’t describe it. I’m so happy, I’ve done it – there’s so much relief now. I’m happy, very happy.” She had come through a series of horrific injuries in recent seasons, including crashing in the 2016 final, so the victory felt that bit sweeter. In a turbulent time for British Cycling, this young athlete is a beacon of future promise and certainly one to watch. “BMX is everything, it’s my family’s life, it’s taken over everything,” she said. “So I’m going to stick to it and make it to the Olympics.”
Speaking up for women in sport is something that we see Andy Murray doing time and time again. There was the occasion at the Olympics when John Inverdale overlooked Serena Williams’s four Olympic gold medals. Murray was there to remind him. Then at Wimbledon this year Murray upbraided a journalist when he overlooked the fact that Sam Querry was not the only United States player to reach the semi-finals. Since that press conference, where Murray was widely praised across social media for his interruption, he has spoken further on the issue. He claimed he had no plan to become an unexpected champion of women’s sport – gender equality just seemed obvious to him given the equal sacrifice made by both men and women. Andy Murray’s unquestioning acceptance and acknowledgment of female sporting achievement has made a huge impact this year and it is a promising sign for the future.
Across our cities and sporting venues in Britain there are a host of statues and sporting memorabilia. Yet only two of these statues are of sportswomen compared to more than 200 of sportsmen. The stories of a vast array of female athletes are invisible to the public and feed the notion that women, sport and their colourful history are non-existent and incompatible. Thus, in an exciting partnership this year, journalist Anna Kessel MBE and the Women’s Sport Trust joined forces to begin The Blue Plaque Rebellion. The initiative aims to recognise and relive the exploits of some of our most talented sportswomen. The Rebellion was launched at the #BeAGameChanger awards in May, and since then Anna and her cohorts have been encouraging people to unearth the stories of great sporting women while campaigning for public platforms to secure the legacy of these pioneering female athletes.
POLITICAL UPHEAVAL OF THE YEAR – ENI ALUKO
While political upheavals of any sort can often be the result of wrongdoing, it is important to remember the resolve of individuals who become the catalysts for change. None more so than Eni Aluko, the former England striker who opened up about the discrimination she faced as part of the national team. In so doing she helped to bring about a government inquiry into the FA’s handling of the situation surrounding the departure of manager Mark Sampson over allegations of inappropriate behaviour. The Chelsea forward played by the rules, trying to help the FA with investigations into racist behaviour but was initially ignored. However, her testimony in front of the Digital, Sport and Media Select Committee damaged the image and credibility of the FA, and opened up a debate challenging what is acceptable and presenting an example of a modern sporting role model. Aluko’s stance echoes society’s concerns better than the organisations who run the show. By doing so, she may well have taken the first step towards an improvement for the next generation of female players.
UNSUNG HERO – JOY NEVEILLE
When watching a scintillating match or event, it is easy to forget the officials in the background who are there to help the sport sparkle. Too often referees are blamed by frustrated fans as the reason their team lost. Yet rugby referee Joy Neville, who presided over the women’s rugby world cup final, is having a far more influential and beneficial impact on the game. The former Irish international, who won 70 caps as well enjoying a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2013, has only been refereeing for three years. Last night, Neville continued the history-making trajectory for female rugby referees when she became the first woman to referee a men’s professional European club fixture – the Challenge Cup round-four fixture between Bordeaux-Begles and Enisei-STM. She has already served as an assistant in Pro14 and Champions Cup fixtures, and it was announced in October that she would become a full-time professional referee joining Sarah Cox of England and Spainard Alhambra Nievas. She is an unsung hero for her pragmatic and action-led barrier-breaking. Her fair and empathetic refereeing style is helping to change perceptions of women in sport.
CHALLENGE OF THE YEAR – ELAINE HOPLEY
Elaine Hopley is no stranger to pushing her body to the absolute limits, and loving every minute of it. The former Scottish mountain bike cross-country champion took on her toughest challenge yet this year: the Atlantic Challenge. By completing the course in 59 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes, she became the fastest woman to row solo across the Atlantic in the 30-year history of the race. In the process she missed Christmas, New Year and both her sons’ birthdays. Hopley is a testament to the resilience and determination of women in sport, yet the epic challenge took its toll on her body, too. She was burning around 8,000 calories a day and had lost 20 per cent of her body weight by the end of the event. Still, the 45-year-old fittingly attributes her amazing exploits to her late mother, Jan. Indeed, Hopley dedicated the crossing to her mum and continues to raise money through similar physical challenges for Alzheimer’s Scotland in her memory.
(SADDEST) FAREWELL OF THE YEAR – RACHAEL HEYHOE FLINT
This year also marked the departure of many treasured names in the sporting world, including former England cricket captain and sporting maverick Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who passed away in January at the age of 77. “Girls don’t play cricket,” a police constable once informed young Rachael, so she spent her life proving people like him wrong. During her England captaincy, Heyhoe Flint did not lose a Test and she led her team to victory against New Zealand for the first time in a decade. No stranger to centuries, she scored one in her first Test in charge as well as her last. “Women’s cricket received very little attention then,” said Heyhoe Flint in an interview in 1996. “Len Hutton [one of the all-time greats] said it was a bit like watching a man knit. That used to gripe me so much … perhaps they thought we were still bowling underarm. It was that lack of coverage that made me determined to try and promote the sport.” And promote it she did, becoming a revolutionary figure for the women’s game. That she succeeded is underlined by the fact she became one of the first women granted membership of the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1999. She was also the first woman to step out on the sacred Lord’s turf in a playing capacity, so it was unfortunate that this pioneer of the game was unable to witness England’s World Cup victory on the same ground this year. Yet you can imagine her satisfaction if she had sat in the packed Lord’s stands knowing that the hardships she had faced, the self-funded tours and Marks & Spencer blouses, had helped make England’s triumph possible.
LONG OVERDUE ACHIEVEMENT – JESSICA ENNIS-HILL
It only seems five minutes ago since Jessica Ennis-Hill blew the nation away with her emotional and emphatic gold medal in the heptathlon at the London Olympics in 2012. Yet a shadow had clouded the preceding season for her when she was beaten to the world title by a now-banned drugs cheat. Ennis-Hill’s second place in the 2011 World Championships in Daegu was finally upgraded in 2016. In a spine-tingling moment during this summer’s World Championships, back in London where she topped the podium five years previously, the nation’s sweetheart received her long overdue gold medal from Sebastian Coe. Ennis-Hill was just a month away from delivering her second child, so as the National Anthem rang out there was a poignant moment when she could reflect on the magical moments of her past before turning her attention to the future and the imminent arrival of daughter Olivia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.