Sporting life: The welcome death of the “sporty girl” standard

 I'm delighted by the rise of the Girl Who Wants To Have Fun

November 01, 2023
Illustration by Clara Nicoll
Illustration by Clara Nicoll

At the school I went to—two decades ago now—being good at sport afforded you levels of popularity no other field of achievement could touch. There were a number of reasons for this, the most obvious being the physical glamour of the Sporty Girl. She typically boasted a lean, lithe figure and long pony-tailed hair, assets considered aspirational to many of the rest of us.

She was also a natural nexus of school pride. The lacrosse, swimming and athletics teams enjoyed far more frequent fixtures than the orchestra or drama club, and the outcome of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade didn’t offer the chance to lord it over a much-loathed local rival. Sporting victories raised the status of those involved, whether they captained the netball team or got selected for county tennis trials. At my school, these things were all achieved by the same person. Our all-star athlete—we’ll call her Billie Jean Joyner-Kersee—was such a celebrity that her eventual election to head girl was a formality.

I thought of her recently when I read that the UK government is launching a new “investment accelerator” for women’s sport. The scheme is inspired by British and English successes on the pitch—such as the Lionesses’ unprecedented World Cup run this summer—and designed to optimise commercial opportunities in a rapidly growing sector. Which is industry-speak for “make more money” and useful if it helps to close the yawning pay gap between male and female professional athletes. The goal of gender equality remains so distant that we need every kick we can get in that direction. 

It’s the elite game we think of first when we hear talk of “women’s sport”. But one of the most significant shifts I’ve witnessed in this field has been a social one. When I was growing up, the divide between the Sporty Girl and the unathletic one was absolute.  In my understanding, physical prowess was a gift bestowed on only an elite few. The rest of us were Not Meant for Games.

Before this sounds like mere self-deprecation, I’ve checked my theory with a number of friends and almost every one of them still remembers the name of the Sporty Girl at her school. They described her in just the language I might have used for Billie Jean. “She seemed to be made of different stuff than me,” said one of my friends. “Like her body was made of elastic, and mine was made of sausage meat.”

None of us were truly incapable of physical activity. I had always enjoyed bouncing around on the netball court when I was at primary school. At home, my excess teenage energy was expressed in the living room, in bouts of incoherent dancing.

But PE lessons were like a New Testament parable, the sheep winnowed from the goats by dint of their easy hand-eye co-ordination and their naturally quick reflexes. Those of us who were as often hit by the ball as hitting it were soon discouraged and looked for ways to hide our inadequacies. One of mine was to take up a strategic position behind the lacrosse goal, in the knowledge the ball would never reach me back there. 

No child can be good at everything, and it shouldn’t matter if they’re not any good at anything. For women of my generation, the idea that sport was only for those who excelled was instilled in us before we could even articulate it. The figure of the Sporty Girl is, presumably, a contributing factor to the notoriously high drop-out rate in sporting participation when girls hit puberty—part of the conditioning that feeds into wider issues of societal expectations and body image. A recent survey by the Youth Sports Trust reported that one of the most common reasons girls gave for not wanting to take part in PE was a lack of confidence.

But change is coming. If London 2012 had any kind of legacy, it was in our consumption and perception of women’s sport. The Olympics weren’t just a celebration of the athletes but the activities themselves, with  the message that sport was available to all—not just those with a good throwing arm or a steady putting hand. Clubs and councils are recording an uptake in numbers not just from girls (hurray!) but also from women—like me—who have never felt comfortable on a court or a pitch before. Call it the rise of the Girl Who Wants to Have Fun—even if she’s never felt sporty in her life.