Questioning the fate of women in sport


Stephanie Hilborne – CEO, Women in Sport

Stephanie Hilborne

2022 is shaping up to be an incredible year of sport. As the Winter Olympics draws to a close we can begin to reflect on its impact.

We’ve seen women competing fearlessly in dramatic even beautiful high risk sports. These were sports previously denied to women at the Olympics and as Vicky Gosling has so eloquently set out in her blog such an amazing way to build life skills. The GB team also sent all but equal numbers of male and female athletes to Beijing, but this gender balance disguises a long history of painful exclusion and resultant campaigning.

The first modern Winter Olympics in 1924 was held in Chamonix and eleven women competed out of over 250 athletes.  The women were only allowed to compete in figure skating and their skirts had to be a palm-width below the knee!

Gradually, women were admitted into other Winter Olympics events, first downhill skiing then the slalom. But despite ski-jumping being part of the event for nearly 100 years, women were only allowed to take part in this discipline from 2014 (15 female ski-jumpers having challenged the 2010 exclusion with a lawsuit).  So why is this?

It’s to do with our wombs

Pierre de Coubertin (IOC Founder and President 1896-1925) had set the tone for the Olympics for most of the twentieth century and is credited by many to have instigated the pervading belief that our uteruses might fall if we engaged in vigorous sport.  Olympic events such as pole-vault (banned for women until 2000) and ski-jumping were mostly likely to lead to this unsightly predicament.

Olympic Rings

Monsieur de Coubertin has been credited with a myriad of appalling statements. Perhaps most revealingly: “The role of a woman in the world remains as it always has been. She is above all a companion to man, the future mother of the family and should be brought up having such fate in mind”.

Despite most people now believing that women are people in their own right, and do have a role beyond companionship to a man and motherhood, our current research into attitudes surrounding young girls, is showing that limiting stereotypes are still alive and well.  We will report on that soon.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us

Meanwhile we cheer when we see that half the athletes at the Winter Olympics are women. Our children might look at us, and ask why wouldn’t they be?  And I believe they should all learn this history, because it still matters.

The wonderful second series of Driving Force is now showing on ITV and you can watch the full first series on ITV Hub. Judy Murray’s interviews with sportswomen reveal the additional hurdles female athletes have to jump showing how history fuels our culture, and culture changes far slower than rules.

We must lift the next generation so that every woman and girl is able to fulfil their true potential in all walks of life, with sport playing a critical role in the development of physical literacy and life skills.

Whilst the increased visibility of women’s sport at elite level is a step change in helping to inspire more young girls, we cannot lose sight of the fact that sports provision for girls and women is still woefully inadequate.

To give us the strength to tackle the remaining challenges, this month’s Women in Sport podcast involves an inspiring Winter Olympian, Aimee Fuller  and some equally inspiring women skateboarders.  We talk about how skateboarding and snowsports help us learn to push back fear boundaries and break down some of the barriers that still prevent so many girls from being active. GB SnowSport CEO Vicky Gosling took part in this and subsequently wrote a fabulous blog talking about risk-taking and self-belief.

Tori Evans, Sea Change Sport

Finally, if ever there were women facing up to challenges, rowing the Atlantic must feature. The wonderful Mothership docked last month after 40 days at sea. Now, the wonderful Tori Evans is a week into her World Record Attempt and already going great guns! I used to consider myself tough and brave but meeting these women makes me feel that I really wasn’t!