Martin Samuel: Indeed, women do know their place… on the podium
22:22 GMT, 10 August 2012
A boy growing up in Flint, North Wales, on the banks of the River Dee, would have had no shortage of sporting role models. Ian Rush, one of the greatest footballers his country ever produced, came from Flint.
He went to St Richard Gwyn Catholic High School. He played for Hawarden Rangers in the local junior leagues. Their pitch was in the shadow of Shotton Steelworks, where his father worked.
Jade Jones was not a football-mad boy, though. She was an eight-year-old girl. She had tried football and didn’t like it. She didn’t much care for athletics, either. It was her grandfather who spotted the poster at Flint Pavilion Leisure Centre, promoting the emerging sport of taekwondo. He took her. She loved it.
Kick start: Jade Jones was led to taekwondo by her granddad
Now she has a gold medal, a stamp and
gaily painted postbox in her honour. And little girls in Flint no
longer have to imagine growing up to be Ian Rush. They can pop their
membership applications to the sports club of their choosing into the
receptacle redecorated in honour of Jade Jones.
Between the 1968 Olympics in Mexico
City and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, women contributed nine gold medals
to the British cause. So far, in London, women alone have won 10. There
are golden postboxes from Penzance (sculls rower Helen Glover) to
Lossiemouth (partner Heather Stanning), from Hamble in Hampshire (team
pursuit cyclist Dani King) to the Teesside parish of Ingleby Barwick
(lightweight double sculls rower Kat Copeland).
All Olympics strive for legacy and so
few achieve much that is meaningful, but London 2012 might be
different. If one lasting positive comes from the last two weeks, it is
that no young female should have far to look again for sporting
Towns are fighting for the right to
lay claim to Laura Trott — born in Harlow, Essex, but brought up in in
Cheshunt, Hertfordshire — while the Royal Mail’s attempt to commemorate
Copeland required a second coat of paint as so much gold was picked off
by souvenir-hunting admirers.
What sets this revolution apart is
not just its geographical breadth, but its sporting reach. Boxing to
equestrianism. If the London 2012 Games have proved anything it is that
there are no taboos for women any more. Jones was nicknamed The
Headhunter at her Manchester academy, so aggressive is her kicking
And nobody who saw Nicola Adams win
the first gold medal awarded to a female boxer is in any doubt about the
authenticity of her technique.
Too often women are forced to compete
with a male powerhouse sport for attention. Football, cricket, rugby
union, golf, tennis — all have established male fortresses that command
the bulk of the exposure and therefore the sponsorship dollars. It is at
an Olympics that female athletes come into their own.
Take Jones’s sport, taekwondo. It is
played by men and women, but, in this country at least, does not have
such a strong following that the two are compared. Nobody looks at
Jones, or Sarah Stevenson, the most high-profile taekwondo competitor in
this country until the Aaron Cook controversy, as offering a gentler,
or inferior, version of a man’s game.
And when female rowers or cyclists do
not clock the same times as their male counterparts, their efforts are
not viewed with disdain. As there is no male stranglehold, quite the
opposite. The lack of familiarity with many Olympic sports means men’s
and women’s events have room to breathe.
Gold standard: Helen Glover and Heather Stanning with their medals and Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hoskins (below)
It would be considered idiotic, for
instance, to compare Victoria Pendleton’s keirin to that of Sir Chris
Hoy, yet how often is the performance of a female goalkeeper in football
set up against that of a professional male equivalent, up to six inches
taller and training every day for 20 years
At the Team GB headquarters —
Westfield shopping centre, next door to Marks and Spencer — yesterday a
steady stream of gold medallists offered their thoughts on this
revolution. And it was there that its necessity became most apparent.
Jones and queen of dressage Charlotte
Dujardin are from a section of society where a woman’s views on sport
are so rarely considered. Considering that equestrianism is the one
Olympic discipline that treats men and women as entirely equal,
Dujardin, in particular, seemed very uncomfortable contemplating it as a
The years on the margins have taken
their toll. It took her team-mate Laura Bechtolsheimer, a former
politics student at Bristol University, to put this watershed moment
‘I grew up with three older brothers
so I’ve always had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about being able to do
anything a guy could do,’ she said. ‘For me, it’s apt to compete in a
sport like equestrianism in which men and women are equal.
‘Gender issues don’t have any
relevance in our sport. It is about the way you train your horse, your
relationship with your horse.
‘Our world is great in that we can
compete with the boys and in our sport at least there were three girls
on the podium, so it was quite nice that, beating the boys.
‘I hope we’ll inspire success and
more girls will get involved in sport because of us. Growing up it is
great to have a goal, and something to work for.
‘If you’ve got a talent it gives people confidence who might otherwise be quite shy.’
Bechtolsheimer went to Stonar, a
boarding school that promises an equestrian education beside the
academic. The main building is Grade II listed and set in 80 acres of
parkland. It has stabling for 65 horses and a fully qualified British
eventing coach on site. Mary King pops by to do the occasional extra
We know the advantages of attending a
school like Stonar, so it is no surprise that Bechtolsheimer can speak
for herself and is independent of thought, but it contrasted greatly
with tongue-tied Dujardin, whose family were not wealthy and who left
school at 16, having bunked off a lot of it. Asked about her education,
she had to check the name of her school with her mum.
Sport only reflects society, it does
not mould it. Women are marginalised in sport, because that is the way
in life. As we discovered last season, football, understandably, has a
whole list of taboos around race, religion and homophobia, but wives,
mothers and sisters are still fair game. It is the inclusivity of this
Olympics that has resonated.
Podium not pedestal: team GB women have won events right across the board
The ascent of women
British women have won 10 gold medals so far at this Games – that is more than the total won by British women between the 1968 Games in Mexico City and the 2004 Games in Athens.
The 268 female competitors at these Games make up the biggest women’s team by a margin of 126 participants. On Friday morning, British women were effectively seventh in the medal table.
The ratio of 52 to 48 per cent in favour of the men is the closest at these Games to an equal squad. Women made up 46 per cent of Team GB in Beijing.
At the London Games in 1948 not a single GB woman won gold. In the 1908 London Games the gold medal gender split on the British team was an astonishing 52 to four in favour of the men.
The 1960 Olympics in Rome is the only Games in history where GB’s men and women won an equal number of golds – and that was only one each. Don Thompson (men’s 50km walk) and Anita Lonsbrough – above – (women’s 200m breaststroke).
Only four times have British men won as many as 10 golds – 2008 (12 golds), 1920 (14 golds), 1908 (52 golds) and 1900 (13 golds).
Statistics can be misleading, and, in
comparison to previous Games, the spread of medals is roughly the same.
Women will end up contributing around 40 per cent of British success,
which will be up on Beijing, but not wildly. What has changed is the
move from specialist areas such as swimming or athletics to success
across the programme.
There had never been a British female
gold medallist in rowing until Glover and Stanning. Boxing was a first,
so too taekwondo and dressage. Rower Katherine Grainger highlighted the
worth of female competition by saying that it was training against the
other gold medal-winning female crews each day that raised the
collective standard. Britain had three gold medallist pairs at these
Games and Grainger insists that was no coincidence.
‘If you came first in training, you
knew you had done well,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t as if one pair won it
every day.’ Only four women have collected double gold at a single
Olympic Games, and two of those — Trott and Dujardin — were in London.
So if your daughter still comes home from school believing her sporting
horizon begins and ends on the rounders square, feel free to approach
the head of PE.
‘Running the equestrian programme,
you never think how many women we have got, or how many men,’ said Will
Connell. ‘The only time it comes up is when we are allocating rooms. We
have men and women as equals, and our athletes cross more than 30 years;
we have people in their mid-50s talking of going on to Rio de Janeiro
‘I tell people equestrianism is the
only sport that you can get into at the age of six and still be
competing at the highest level 50 years later, man or woman. In the end,
all sports at this level are not so different: this is about producing
an elite performance on a given day in history. It does not matter who
you are, or where you are from, what you need are talent and drive.’
And a few shiny gold postboxes dotted
around the lanes. Just to remind us that the days of women knowing
their place are gone. From 2012, it’s on a podium, not a pedestal.