Wednesday, 1 August 2012

About being a girl

Until Brad Wiggins won a gold this afternoon in the cycling time trial, a very interesting tale was unfolding on the Olympics medal table, and it screamed 'here come the girls'. But it's not just the medal table that's telling a very interesting story during this Olympics.

First on my radar was Lizzie Armitstead using the platform of winning a silver medal in the women's road race to discuss sexism in sport and in cycling in particular. What she had to say was no surprise. That she said it, was. Unsurprisingly, in the process of becoming, for want of a better word, a pedaler, many conversations have centered around always being the lone female in a group of blokes out mountain biking, of the assumption always being that you're only there because your boyfriend is, of the dickheads shouting abuse out of car windows and the fact that boys don't buy cycling magazines with pictures of girls riding bikes on the front. But underlying all those conversations, every single one, has been the deep seated assumption that this is how it is, how it will always be, and that to 'whine and moan' about it is not going to get us anything but resentment from 50% of the population who when skewed participation is taken into account, are actually more like 90% of the population.

Except that's changing. And it's on the road it's changing, not on the mountain side. Girls mountain biking will, I think, always be a little bit unusual. But girls riding to work, commuting with the sunshine, that's 50%. Girls going on ride outs at the weekend and stopping for tea and cake, that's creeping slowly but surely towards 50% too. Serious girls in serious lycra competing in crits and sportives? Rising. As is membership of British Cycling.

It will be very interesting to see what response Lizzie gets. The lack of derision and instigation of serious discussion in various quarters gives hope.

On to women's hockey. Kate Walsh got smashed in the jaw with a hockey stick during the teams first game on Sunday evening. She went down, screamed, kicked, and then locked down and got it under control. Because female hockey players are built of teflon it was quite chilling to hear such an expression of pain, but she walked off the pitch with a broken jaw, bleeding but dignified and head held high. Why are women hockey players made of teflon? Because it's not been ruled out that now Kate has had a plate inserted into her broken jaw, it's not been ruled out at all that she will be back on the pitch and back captaining her team before the week is out.

It will be very interesting to see whether anyone registers exactly how teflon coated a woman can be.

On to weightlifting and one Zoe Smith. Don't piss her off. And certainly don't assume she's just some dumb ass idiot who took to lifting weights because her brain wasn't too great. The lady can write, and eloquently, and has done so about the ridiculous comments elicited by a documentary aired last week. But perhaps the surprise here is not the comments aimed at a powerful young black woman. Perhaps the surprise is the cacophony of agreement and cheering from the sidelines which her clear, simple and direct retort has received. Thanks but no thanks to the comments, perhaps, but I suspect thanks very much to the positive discussions it's kicked off.

Finally, the woman's football team. This image spoke volumes today, as did this one. They tell the combined story of 75,000 people trekking to Wembley, not the most convenient of destinations on a Tuesday night, to see a team of women who few have ever heard of, play football with the kind of joy, passion and freedom that I last remember seeing associated with football back in the late 80's/early 90's.   Even the coach is a star in my eyes, tempering joy at the first goal with gentle downward pushes of her hands, face solemn, message clear 'we're not done here yet girls, we're not done and you know we're not'. At the end, that same coach hugged the male Brazilian coach without affectation or showmanship, the simple but unfettered expression of appreciation at meeting an equal, beating them fairly, and giving respect but also thanks.

Last time we saw a coach of any male team hugging anyone at all? Last time we saw a female coach of a football team? Last time we saw a black female coach of a football team winning and winning well?

For me these are the stories. For me they are the hope. They are the little shards of light that say that girls have a place in sport in this country. That we are earning our right, not only to be sportswomen, but to be sports fans as well, that we are not just physios and masseurs but we are the smart, and the intelligent, the strategic and the teflon coated, the ballsy and the brave.

Someone just posted a message on Twitter. It said:

Thanks to the Olympics, our tellies and papers are full of talented, determined classy people rather than 'celebrities'. It's very nice indeed. @PoppyD

 For two weeks, every time any girl or woman turns on the television they will be bombarded with images of successful women of all ages, from 15 to 51, achieving the impossible, achieving the tangible, achieving the magnificent with bodies which are healthy, athletic, that curve differently, but that are resilient, that respond, that are capable, bodies which belong to people who are confident, passionate but most of all, very most of all happy and proud.

As far as I am concerned, the physical legacy of this games is already a deal done. It's the psychological legacy for this nation, a nation of women who have been fed celebrity at every turn, that is the one hanging in the balance. Will we understand, finally, the message being sent from every angle, or will we retreat backwards, after the games have gone, into our botox filled, intelligence mocking, make up plastered, always sweetly perfumed world we lived in before? Will we still believe size 6 is it? Will we abhor sweat instead of celebrating it as proof we tried our hardest for as long as we possibly could? Or will we rise to a legacy that says:

We are women, we are strong. We are women, we are team. We are women, we will try our damnedest. We are women, we are athletes. We are women, we are proud.

The lines are drawn. Only we can choose which side we choose to stand.

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