Baroness Campbell packs a potent message about how sport can cure corrosive youth culture
22:00 GMT, 29 March 2012
Baroness Sue Campbell is one of the most powerful people in British sport. As chair of UK Sport and the Youth Sport Trust she oversees the whole of the sporting spectrum: from grassroots participation to elite high performance. She also happens to be a woman.
Campbell is so passionate about the power of sport, particularly the benefits of using this ‘miracle pill’ as a force for good, that she can sound, to use her description, ‘missionary’ at times.
The 63-year-old, a former England Under-21 netballer, is only too aware that her unflinching approach could get on people’s nerves but something else nags away at her, too. She is conscious her uncompromising approach would be much easier to stomach coming from a man.
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When she walked into UK Sport nine years ago, initially with an 18-month task to reform the organisation, she says she encountered sexism so bad it drove her ‘right to the edge’.
Quitting – and letting someone else win – is anathema to Campbell, the type of schoolgirl tomboy who would fight to get her coat on first. Her confident tone – she very seldom stumbles over words – falters just a touch when asked if she has encountered sexism in her career.
‘Yes,’ almost laughing at the suggestion it would be otherwise. ‘I have met some pretty tough moments.’
Campbell takes a quick glance around her office at UK Sport’s headquarters in Russell Square, central London and continues: ‘When I first came into this job, yes, I probably came as close to – I won’t say walking away because I don’t know that I ever would – but I got driven right to the edge here.
‘I’m not sure if it was sexism or if my style got on their nerves, but it felt like sexism. It really was tough going for a while.
‘It’s confusing because I’m an agent of change – and not everybody likes change. I can be horribly dogged on behalf of sport.
‘I’m pretty easy-going, actually, but you threaten sport and I’m afraid you threaten me. Then I can be a pain, and I will be a pain, because I’ve spent a life trying to do my very best for sport, because I so believe in it.
'Maybe that’s what people have hated me for, or found me difficult to handle. You can easily put it down as sexism, but certainly it is a man’s world.’
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She guards her words carefully but it is clear the sexism Campbell encountered was not in the form of inappropriate sexual innuendo, but the patronising put-downs of men upset that a woman had not only infiltrated but was now in charge of their world.
Change is difficult to handle at any time, but it is easy to play the ‘How would you know You’re a woman’ card if you don’t like what you’re hearing.
As the first woman on the staff at Loughborough University in 1976, Campbell says it didn’t really occur to her that she was the lone female among the ‘25 blokes in their African violet tracksuits’.
‘If anything, I felt slightly, occasionally, looked after,’ she says, ‘like a little sister. You could have seen that as patronising but I found it very useful. They were great guys and I got on incredibly well with them.
‘I think it was when I came into the National Coaching Foundation, where I was rubbing against very strong personalities on governing bodies and the more hardcore, traditional sport, then I started to experience it.
‘I’ve never felt the need to stand on the “women in sport” platform and bang the drum but I try every day to be what I am and I’m very proud to be a woman. I don’t really want to be a pseudo male.’
Campbell, a tall, slim former netball goal defence, retains the outdoorsy, approachable aura of a PE teacher but, in her simple light grey suit, she is far from a ‘pseudo male’.
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She listens considerately and is
surprisingly witty but she bristles when asked whether she finds it
irritating that we still discuss ‘women’s sport’, even though Great
Britain’s women are set to outshine their male counterparts in many
disciplines at this summer’s home Olympics.
she says. ‘I’ve spent quite a lot of my life in the (United) States and
my American friends are blown away by how appalling the coverage of
women’s sport is here. If you did it in America, half the nation would
be down your throat. They just wouldn’t stand for it.
‘All the sport in the (British) media is played by males and the only time you get any profile for women’s tennis is when the British players all got knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open. What you’re projecting all the time is women fail, or they’re not even worth reporting on.
‘Maybe if there were more women in there, more women would be interested in the dialogue. But at the moment, they’re sitting watching men playing something so there isn’t any great dialogue because they aren’t those men.
'It’s the little boy thing; the relationship with the players. “If only I could have been playing for Spurs.” Whereas because it’s not an option for us you don’t think, “I could have been”.’
Campbell’s roles at UK Sport and the Youth Sport Trust are to try and ensure no sportsperson, whether an elite athlete or a child playing football at school, are left thinking what might have been.
She is confident ‘we’re where we want to be’ in terms of high performance but, despite her upbeat, positive demeanour, there is regret in her voice when she discusses school sport.
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If the Olympics has ‘turbocharged’ the drive for podium places, the Government’s decision in October 2010 to scrap 450 school sports partnerships, which were run by the Youth Sport Trust, was a devastating blow.
Campbell said: ‘In high performance, we’re ahead of where we were before Beijing. We think we’ll do really well in London and even better in 2016 because they’ve got it now.
‘We created a cultural shift where we said coming 10th in the medal table isn’t good enough. Everybody said, “Really” and I said, “Absolutely. We’re going to pitch for fourth”. (But) in school sport, if I’m honest, I would have liked to have continued to have that wonderful infrastructure of great people.
'It was a way of ensuring we could give every child a great experience in sport and hopefully improve their life chances, so we’re not, ideally, where we want to be.
‘In 2003 there were 23 per cent of our kids doing two hours of PE and sport a week. That’s how low it was. But 2009 it was over 90 per cent. Those people drove that. They got it and they were doing an amazing job.
‘(But) now we’ve a new mission, called the Sainsbury’s 2012 School Games. It’s about engaging all kids and giving them the best chance you can through sport.’
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This is the underlying belief that really drives Campbell, even now, more than three decades after she first walked into a ‘challenging’ school in Moss Side, Manchester, in the early 1970s and was confronted by a group of girls smoking cigarettes and refusing to play netball because ‘they said they might break their nails’.
She smiles as she relays a story that has clearly been told many times before. ‘What they evolved into was an amazing dance group,’ she says.
‘It’s the one thing it’s really hard to get politicians to get hold of,’ Campbell adds. ‘They get sport. They realise they have all sorts of “youth issues”. But I believe sport is one of the most powerful things we’ve got to change youth culture.
‘The frustration for me is we have evidence, but I can’t get people to say, “Wow, here is something that’s almost like a miracle pill”. We don’t use it for that end, we use it to get more people doing sport, rather than see sport as a way of getting more people improved and doing well in life.
‘I’m not saying we’d stop all riots or we wouldn’t have kids with huge challenges, but we could and we should be able to change youth culture.’