Our superheroines still have walls to knock down

Day thirteen of the Olympics has almost finished and I am meeting up with some school friends in the local pub. After the greetings and general catching up, the conversation naturally turns to the Olympic Games. Now, the group of friends are all women and have a varying amount of sporting ability and interest, so I was naturally interested where the conversation would go.

It started well: Team GB’s medal success and reminiscing about hockey from our school days and how they were looking forward to watching the GB women in the final against the Netherlands. Promising stuff! I was feeling quite proud of my friends for embracing the Olympics and the fact they were looking forward to the history-making girls in action.

But the conversation did not continue along any lines of sporting prowess, tactics or anything hockey-related at all. It moved on to how the girls wear make-up now, straighten their hair and the hockey dresses are ‘sexier than the ones we had to wear’.

As someone who wants to promote women’s sport, my heart sunk on hearing the remarks around me. But then, am I really surprised? My friends are not involved in sport, they are normal mums who juggle work, parenting and trying to keep fit with a bit of Pilates three times a week. Why would they suddenly be inspired by the incredible women of Team GB winning so many medals?

The truth of the matter is that the Olympic Games are elitist. Elitist in that they appeal to the 10 per cent of the population who ‘get’ sport. Sally Gunnell at Barcelona 92 inspired me, but by then I was already an England junior international badminton player. The young girls watching Rio this summer and wanting to be next Laura Trott, Katherine Grainger or Nicola Adams, will already be into their sport with incredibly supportive parents and a serious training regime in place.

So how can the incredible feats of Rio be relayed in the best possible way to inspire not only women, but men, too? To make potential sponsors aware that women’s sport is worth investing in? Do we continue along the lines of the OK magazine fashion choices of Rebecca Adlington? Or photographing Becky James kissing her famous boyfriend George North? And only putting two of the four team pursuit cyclists on the front of a national newspaper?

The bias of reporting on female athletes has been incredible at Rio 2016. From any picture of women’s beach volleyball to the unintentional sexist remarks from commentators and pundits. Some people may say this is an attack on the predominantly male sports media, but the truth is, the ones who have been culprits had no idea they were doing it. The only way to stop it is to raise awareness. A study by the Cambridge Press pre-Olympics showed the words to describe female athletes were more on the aesthetic side compared to the muscular description of male athletes. The Times chief sports writer Matt Dickinson openly admitted his lack of women’s sports viewing and wrote a fantastic article on how sport is still so slow to tackle sexism. And reading these reports just confirms what every woman involved in sport already knows: we are constantly fighting what is at times a losing battle.

So what next for our Team GB heroines? There will be the obligatory photo-shoot in a posh ballgown for a newspaper, the magazine deals for the upcoming weddings (only ones to a famous other half, of course), and then it’s back to the relative obscurity of the training ground for the next four-year Olympic cycle.

But by being heroines, and going about your sport in a professional, determined, focused and inspirational way, you have put women’s sport in the hearts and minds of many people. You have showcased how beautiful ‘strong’ is and brought tears of pride to a nation. I am proud to be associated with women’s sport. I am proud to be an Olympian. I am proud that like Katherine Grainger, Jazz Carlin, Charlotte Dujardin, and Nicola Adams, to name just four, I have represented Team GB at the most prestigious sporting event in the world. Here’s to the next generation of female superheroes.


Gail Emms MBE is one of Britain’s most successful badminton players, best remembered for her silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With partner Nathan Robertson, she won gold at the World Championships in 2006, the Commonwealth Games in the same year, and the European Championships in 2004. Gail was six times national mixed doubles champion and national ladies doubles champion five times. Since retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gail has been a versatile sports presenter on a variety of television and radio programmes. She was awarded the MBE for services to badminton in 2009. She is the mother of two boys. Gail’s latest articles