Illustration by Adam Q

Sporting life: “This girl can”

New interest in women’s sport might have been spurred by cynical marketing—but it’s still brought real benefits to the lives of the women I care about
June 16, 2022

For most of her life, my sister has been a sporting refusenik. She’s part of that rare breed who can ignore a World Cup in its entirety. Even if England make it to the knockout stages, she feels no need to feign an interest in the outcome, maintaining an admirable imperviousness to cultural peer pressure and mass-media hype alike. I can appreciate this, as I have kept up the same indifference to pop music throughout my life. My mind doesn’t have room to care about Dennis Taylor and Taylor Swift.

Anyway, the only sporting occasion my sister does make time for is Wimbledon. I suspect she’s in good company. The tournament takes over primetime terrestrial programming every evening for two weeks and remains a part of our national conversation in a way that cricket and rugby—two more of our so-called national sports—have long since forfeited. Just as you don’t have to know about ballroom dancing to have strong opinions about the performances on Strictly, you don’t need to be able to tell slice from topspin to find yourself getting passionate about Dan Evans’s chances or Emma Raducanu’s journey.

Last year, however, my sister surprised us all by announcing that she had translated her love of watching tennis into actually playing it. For context, the last time she was involved in any form of competitive sport was a quarter of a century ago, when a lacrosse teacher persuaded her to lend her unskilled defence to the school’s under-15 B-team. It wasn’t her athleticism that the teacher was hoping to co-opt so much as her popularity with the other girls. The team went on to lose most weeks, but always in a wonderfully cheerful manner.

Still, here she was, taking her first ever tennis lesson at the age of 40. Much research has been done about what causes young women to give up on recreational sport when they leave school and a range of factors have been identified, from issues of body image to old-school coaching traditions. But nothing, surely, has kept more women away from sport than the simple, age-old message that it isn’t for them: that physicality, competition and sweating are male activities.

Only two decades ago, the idea of accommodating women in sport could still cause eyerolls from otherwise well-meaning and progressive folk. There was no notion of “feminising” the space that sport occupied; if you’d suggested then that what football needed was more women in the stands and on the pitch, football would have told you that it was getting along quite nicely without them, thanks very much.

Was it a sudden enlightenment about gender equality that kickstarted the change in attitude? No—it was the desire of a newly professionalised and endlessly voracious industry to maximise its revenues. As the buffers in the boardrooms were replaced with media-savvy marketeers, the accepted wisdom changed: for the first time women had potential, even if it was just as audience numbers.

It’s rare that I find myself cheering such nakedly cynical capitalism, but I can’t deny the improvement it has brought in the lives of the women I care about and the sisterhood as a whole. Friends who have spent grim years at the gym, pushing their bodies on treadmills that never felt like anything but torture equipment, have found their way back to activities they always enjoyed, like netball or badminton. Women who have watched their daughters play sports they were never even allowed to try—like football or rugby—are taking up the opportunity themselves.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the only sport my sister has ever enjoyed watching is the only one that regularly elevated women when we were growing up. And I don’t think the fact that she’s now making time—and childcare plans—to spend an hour or two a week at the local courts is unrelated to the growing coverage of women’s sport, the promotion of family-friendly spectator events and the “This Girl Can” video campaign. As for me, I was so proud of her that I bought her a cute tennis outfit for Christmas—then went out and joined my local cricket club. This summer, after 30 years of watching and writing about cricket, I’ll finally play it for the first time.