Extraordinary women who are real game-changers

On International Women’s Day, the Mixed Zone’s editor, Sue Mott, explores the notion that it is not normal for women to play sport

No woman is normal. If there was a straight, delineated Greenwich meantime of “normal” imposed on womankind, the one thing you can guarantee is that absolutely no one would be on it. Victoria Pendleton would be as far from it as humanly possible. Over near New Zealand somewhere. To actually want to ride a half-ton beast at up to 40mph in a crowd of jostling jockeys when you’ve only been riding for a year in front of the goggling eyes of the world – over jumps – at one of the most prestigious National Hunt meetings in the world … that’s not normal.

Jess Ennis-Hill, amazing World and Olympic champion that she is, mother of Reggie whose birth she perfectly inserted in 2014 between the London and the Rio Games, girl-next-door, sponsors’ dream, nemesis of Sheffield United in their sexist phase when they were trying to keep a convicted rapist on the pitch … she’s not normal, either. She’s an extreme case of abs and ineffably cool magnificence.

And then there’s her young challenger, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who suffered that horrible experience at the Beijing World Championships last year with disqualification in her best event – the long jump – during the heptathlon in which she’d been considered a favourite. “It was very, very, very grim,” is how her coach, Mike Holmes, described the bashing she received in the medias, social and professional. How normal is it to remind yourself every day of that painful episode with a close-up photo of your foot minimally over the landing line as a screen saver on your laptop? Not, is the answer. But it’s motivation now, not torture.

Athlete Jo Pavey is no one’s hazy idea of normal, training in Devon in all weathers, minus funding, plus family, determined eye on selection for the 10,000 metres in Rio … when she will be 42. It was considered an heroic near-miracle when she won the European 10,000-metres title in 2014 and became known, she always says with a laugh, “for being old”. Also one of the greatest exemplars of perseverance and decency in British sport.

There’s the Lionesses, toiling away for years in a seemingly private silo of barren interest until suddenly – hey presto – they revved up their challenge at the World Cup in 2015, discarding ancient mockeries, beating the Germans and whole-heartedly converting a nation of fans who once thought anything other than men’s football was short rations. Women footballers did this. Women footballers who have been scorned and banned as not normal for decades. Indeed, they’re not. They’re game-changing.

That boatful of female rowers – the ones jokily called the Coxless Crew – who took months to break the record for crossing the Pacific, rowed naked when the felt like it to ease the blister situation and gave nice human names to the sharks that encircled them – they’re not normal, are they? They’re on the same far-flung sanity latitude at Victoria Pendleton, prepared to actually risk life for the enhanced pleasure of sporting adventure.

The point is, women vary. And so the very notion, once firmly maintained by British society, that sport wasn’t normal for women turns out to be abnormal itself. It seems ridiculous now, not to mention unhealthy, that girls should not have played tennis without corsets, nor run marathons (banned in the Olympics until 1984), nor become breathless unless polishing the silver too strenuously. As for a woman’s rugby player, she would probably have been locked up.

But a society that didn’t think women should move much, except to alter the slant of their hat, was always destined for disappointment.

It took a while and we’re still in the hangover phase. Young women still abandon sport in large numbers during their teenage years, would-be women sports journalists may still be deterred by the absence of abundant role models, coverage of women’s sport is by no means universal, equality is nowhere near established as a funding model in professional sport, the majority of coaches are still male, you still hear people say “women hate sport” as though it’s an absolute condition being human.

And then there’s the subtle reinforcement of Edwardian values. During a classic exchange in Victoria Pendleton’s press conference to announce she will ride at Cheltenham, a distinguished journalist asked a question of Paul Nicholls, the trainer of her horse.

“Paul, were you to win the Gold Cup, how would you feel if Victoria overshadows that either by doing very well or falling at the first?”

Nicholls: “I haven’t got a runner in the Gold Cup.” [Room Laughs].

In other words, whatever Pendleton is doing, it isn’t sport. It disrupts the main business of the day as laid down by decades, by traditions, by – predominantly – blokes.

On the contrary, though, this is sport. A sensational endeavour, seriously risky, but a dramatic enhancement to the mix. It’s pushing the boundaries of all expectation. It’s creating the new normal in which those women who love, play, watch sport can thrive.

Still, if it is any consolation to those who lament the storming of male-only enclaves in the sporting arena, when Pendleton lines up in the Foxhunters’ Chase on the lively Pacha du Polder, they will present between them an entirely gender-neutral arrangement. The horse, at least, is male.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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