The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter looks back over the past twelve months and reminds us of the high spots – and one or two low ones – from a momentous year for women’s sport
It has been a year that has divided the nation like no other; a year in which the world as we know it seems to be at its most fragile and unstable. But one thing has remained constant: the power of sport to thrill, to move, to motivate and to inspire. And for women’s sport, there has surely never been a better year. More column inches, better broadcast coverage, professional contracts for our sportswomen and progressive conversations about how we photograph, talk about and view our extraordinary female athletes. The sport itself has been sensational. From the tears and the controversy, to the triumphs and the history-makers, women’s sport has not known twelve months like it.
Not that 2016 started well. Maria Sharapova hit the headlines when it was announced that at the Australian Open she had failed a drug test for meldonium, a substance which went on to the banned list January. She received a two-year ban, later reduced to 15 months after an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. While the tennis world turned on their former darling, with Dominika Cibulkova claiming she would not be missed and was a “totally unlikeable person”, her sponsor Head stuck fast.
While Sharapova sat out Wimbledon, Queen Serena Williams claimed her 22nd career Grand Slam title, wowing with both her ferocity on-court and her unashamed self-confidence off it. When asked if she felt she was one of the greatest female athletes of all time, she replied: “I prefer ‘greatest athlete of all time’,” reminding us that we limit her burning ambitions at our peril.
But her reign as world number one ended this year; Williams pulled out of the WTA Finals with a shoulder injury, which allowed Angelique Kerber to rise to the top for the first time. The German also took silver at the Olympics in Rio. The bronze medallist, Petra Kvitova, is lucky to be alive to see in the New Year after needing emergency surgery on her playing hand when defending herself against a knife-wielding burglar. Even so, the Czech faces a six-month stint on the sidelines.
But one of the greatest tennis tales of 2016 surely belonged to Johanna Konta. She rose from world number 147 to break into the top 10. She became the first British woman to be seeded at Wimbledon since Jo Durie in 1984, and our first in 33 years to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, which she did at the Australian Open.
Konta was beaten to the top spot in the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year by Rachel Atherton, who had a “perfect season”. The mountain-biker won the downhill World Championship and the World Cup, in which she won all seven events, the first person to do so. She has been unbeaten for as astonishing 18 months, which makes her omission from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist something of an oversight.
Cycling brought more triumphs and controversy. Laura Trott – now Kenny – became our most successful female Olympian in history, winning both the omnium and team pursuit golds to add to her two titles from London 2012. She then married team-mate – and six-time Olympic champion – Jason Kenny. But Dame Sarah Storey’s haul of gold medals is even more impressive than the Kennys combined, with the three she won in Rio taking her to a career tally of 14. She is now Britain’s most successful female Paralympian in history.
Becky James and Katy Marchant won silver medals on the track, but for world road race champion Lizzie Armiststead – now Deignan – Rio was a Games to forget. Just days before the 2012 silver medallist’s race, the news leaked that she had missed three drugs tests, but subsequently avoided a ban after successfully appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Intense scrutiny from critics, fans and media saw a surprisingly fragile Armitstead on the start-line before she finished fifth in an incredibly dramatic race.
One race that has not run its course is Jess Varnish’s fight against British Cycling, and Shane Sutton in particular, over alleged bullying. She was dropped from the sprint squad just months before the Olympic Games and Sutton was forced to resign. The battle looks set to become uglier still as Varnish has asked for her data to be made public after a British Cycling investigation refuted eight of her nine allegations.
Bullying in some of our most successful Olympic sports became a hot topic as The Mixed Zone published an exclusive interview with Emily Taylor about women’s GB rowing coach Paul Thompson. The story, which prompted others to publicly comment both against and in defence of Australian Thompson, saw British Rowing conduct an internal review.
But the women rowers put the problems behind them when it came to Rio, doing their talking on the water. The women’s eight claimed a history-making silver, Heather Stanning and Helen Glover defended successfully their women’s pair gold, while the women’s double of Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley had the row of their lives to finish runners-up. The medal, the fifth of Grainger’s career, was all the more remarkable as six weeks beforehand the duo had not even been selected as an Olympic crew. Despite this year being the “worst” of her career, Grainger is now our most decorated female Olympian and, like Stanning, can retire in peace.
The Games themselves were an unprecedented success for Team GB. Despite security concerns, fears about the Zika virus, green water, high winds, low ticket sales and the occasional stray bullet, Britain went home with 67 medals. That made it not only our best ‘away’ Games, but also our most successful Games in history full stop, beating the 65 medals won in London four years before. Of those 67 medals, 27 were gold, across a record-breaking 14 sports. Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, no country has increased its medal tally at the summer Games immediately after the one it hosted.
Again, our extraordinary sportswomen excelled, none more so than the Team GB hockey team, led by the inspirational Kate Richardson-Walsh. Undoubtedly one of the best women’s sport moments of the year was that hockey final. Nine million watched as women’s team sport gatecrashed the 10 o’clock news. Maddie Hinch, whose heroics in goal during the nail-biting penalty shootout against the Netherlands, will have inspired the next generation of goalkeepers.
Nicola Adams and Jade Jones both defended their titles in boxing and taekwondo respectively. Vicky Holland won our first triathlon medal in a dramatic sprint finish against team-mate and good friend Non Stanford, Bryony Page won Britain’s first medal on the trampoline, while gymnast Amy Tinkler became our youngest medallist, aged just 16, when she took bronze in the floor exercise.
Elsewhere, we screamed reigning champion Jess Ennis-Hill home to a thrilling silver medal in the heptathlon – before she announced the end of her amazing career in October. And we wept with Charlotte Dujardin, who won dressage gold and silver to add to her collection, all of them aboard superstar Valegro, who bowed out at Olympia in December.
There were more standout moments for women’s sport in the Paralympic Games. Three-time gold medallist Hannah Cockroft stepped up to the longer distances on the track, while Kadeena Cox became the first Briton to win gold medals in two sports (cycling and athletics) at the same Games for 32 years. Teen Ellie Robinson’s exploits in the pool – a gold and a bronze – helped win her Young Sports Personality of the Year.
Not many, though, would have predicted that the highest-placed woman in the Sports Personality of the Year, as voted by the public, would be a Paralympian. But Sophie Christiansen is a game-changer in so many ways. She is a multiple gold medallist in equestrian sport as well as having a first-class honours degree in maths and a career in the City. And after determinedly walking on to the stage at the SPOTY awards, looking absolutely fabulous in red, she finished fifth overall.
Her gold-medal-winning team-mate Anne Durham, just short of her 68th birthday, saw beyond the competition for her moment of the year. Winning gold was glorious enough, but a hug from her tearful daughter immediately afterwards outshone all the gold in the world.
Away from Rio, Manchester City enjoyed an historic unbeaten season, during which they won the Super League and the FA WSL Trophy, while England’s cricketers have undergone a changing of the guard. Captain Charlotte Edwards, one of the greatest players in history, retired after a decade in charge to leave Heather Knight to lead the team into a new era ahead of the World Cup in England in 2017. Elise Christie, meanwhile, put Sochi 2014 heartbreak behind her, by dominating the World Cup speed-skating series in the run-up to Christmas.
Indeed Sochi – and Russia – hit the headlines this year, thanks to the heroic whistleblowing from Yulia Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy. Sport will never be the same again as the full, jaw-dropping extent of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal was made clear in the McLaren Report. It led to a partial ban at the Olympic Games, a total ban at the Paralympics and a boycott of Russia-hosted winter sports events.
However, it is not just the elite who have excelled. We were cheered and inspired by the Yorkshire Rows team – four ordinary, yet extraordinary women rowing the Atlantic – one of whom was even caught on breakfast TV naked from the waist down.
To cap it all, the latest report by Sport England shows just how inspiring and motivating this year of sport has been. In short, more women than ever are doing sport. May we continue reading and watching it as 2017 looks set to bring us more thrilling action.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.