Time to give women a sporting chance

Natalie du Toit (File)
Natalie du Toit (File)

“THERE's a woman on the sports pages!” I whoop. My husband looks over my shoulder.

“Where?”

“Here, look, it’s Lewis Hamilton’s girlfriend!”

Yes, that’s how rare a picture of a woman sportsperson is in the news.

On June 26, the Times reported on the cricket played in Leicester by both men’s and women’s national teams – and yes, the report did pay some tribute to the winning women, taking a roundabout path to get there:

Men are apparently from Mars and women from Venus, but cricket-minded South Africans of whatever gender wouldn't have had to think too hard before picking their preferred planet yesterday.

Normal service resumed for South Africa's men in Cardiff, where England clinched the T20 series but their women counterparts got their World Cup campaign off to a rousing start with victory over Pakistan in Leicester.

AB de Villiers' team went down by 19 runs in the deciding game of the rubber, bringing to six the number of defeats they have suffered in the nine matches they have played in England.

Dane van Niekerk talked tough leading into the tournament and her team backed her up by surging to a three-wicket win with an over to spare.

Both of South Africa's teams were put under pressure in matches that could have gone either way.

Only one survived that test.

Any jokes about all those years spent in the kitchen inuring women to the heat will come with a punchline of mandatory membership of Misogynists Anonymous.

But, out of a total of 299 words, 93 were devoted to sketching the women’s game – a three-wicket win. Why they couldn’t say that Player of the Match Shabnim Ismail smashed three boundaries in the second-last over, securing victory for her side, is a question.

I gave you that news in less than 20 words; would it not have been a good idea to give a leetle more space to what she achieved than to devote 60-plus words to a male player who twice in one match did not manage to achieve a hat-trick? (And yes, the Times has less space than online publications – sport24 and IOL did it better.

The South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP) celebrated Youth Month by sending an open letter to the media, asking that they consciously turn the spotlight on women in sports. Their aim is to get girls engaged in healthy activities as young as possible, by creating sports heroines for them.

The absence of women in sports sections of print, radio and TV is quite startling. You will see women’s sport reported on during: a) Wimbledon next week; b) Comrades; c) Two Oceans and Duzi, a tiny mention; d) the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games; e) Caster Semenya any time she wins.

But where’s the news about the national teams – soccer, hockey, netball, cycling and more, as well as cricket? Nyet, nada, niks.

Oh, right, the sports editors will tell you there’s not enough interest. Yeah, I remember the sports editor on a major radio station telling me that in the 1990s about athletes with disabilities – “Nobody’s interested in hearing about disabled sport,” he said dismissively.

Then (accompanying the new regime’s national focus on inclusiveness) along came Natalie du Toit, and Oscar Pistorius (who sadly turned bad on us, but did create a high profile for the field) and people like Ernst van Dyk (two Olympic golds, ten-times winner of the Boston Marathon). Suddenly there was some interest, as it turned out.

Of course, the chaps who follow sport will also tell you that there’s just not enough excitement in women’s sport. To which I will respond, “How much have you actually watched?” There’s been some nail-biting stuff in the recent Brutal Fruit Netball Premier League, which you wouldn’t have seen, guys, because it’s not on TV and you weren’t there in the stands.

If all you care about is brute force instead of agility, skill and technique, fine, stick to following the testosterone-riddled stuff. But let’s not deny women the news-space to shine and develop a following of their own.

Why does it matter? The background info in the SASP letter shows that it is of real and measurable value to get girls enthused about sport, not just for their health’s sake (kids who get involved in sport early develop the lifelong habit of being active), but also for other reasons.

Sports girls less likely to fall pregnant

Sports girls are less likely to fall pregnant – and you know teen pregnancy is a major issue for us, blocking academic progress and economic participation for many of our girls. They have better self-esteem and confidence; they do better academically.

And, while I grant you this is US research, when Dr Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, looked at the impact of girls engaging in sport, she found that it translated, a bit later in life, into a “20 percent increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women”.

I look forward to a day when women turn habitually to the sports pages for their comprehensive fix of women sports stars, especially in team sports; and when reporters play it straight, instead of feeling a need to make remarks about planets and kitchens, remarks that perhaps reveal a slight self-consciousness about reporting on women playing cricket and other team sports.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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