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On the Olympics, sports in schools, and new female role models, by Carrie Dunn

Blah blah blah blah female role models blah blah blah blah competitive sport blah blah blah blah celebrity culture is dead blah blah blah blah compulsory sport in schools…

This whole debate is puzzling to me. I went to school from 1984 to 1998.

In all but the last two years, I had to do PE (although I also give an honourable exception to the school year 1995-96, where I had bronchitis for most of the winter and then come the spring I really couldn’t be bothered to give up valuable revision time for running around on a tennis court).

In all of those years, I was watching – and loving – sport outside of school. I went to football; I watched cricket and athletics on the television. I admired Sally Gunnell and Liz McColgan and Yvonne Murray and Sonia O’Sullivan and Karen Walker and all sorts of other sportswomen.

And yet I still hated sport at school.

It wasn’t because I didn’t have any female athletes as role models.

It wasn’t because I wasn’t offered various activities to try in class (in my entire school career, we did everything from country dancing to cross-country to volleyball to swimming).

It wasn’t because it was too competitive or not competitive enough.

It wasn’t because girls weren’t allowed to do the same sports as boys – we did football and touch rugby at middle school in mixed classes.

And it certainly wasn’t because we didn’t have individual changing rooms. (Seriously, what the fuck?)

No. It was because I was shit at sport. Pure and simple. (Being shit at sport is even more distressing, I feel, when you love sport. Imagine the frustration when you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, but you can’t make your body do it.)

It’s all very well admiring fantastic athletes, but you and I are never going to run as fast as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce or for as long as Tiki Gelana, nor jump as far as Brittney Reese, nor have the all-round sporting ability of Jessica Ennis (and we’re certainly not going to have stomach muscles like hers). Sure, it’s probably healthier to admire these women for their achievements rather than some of the tabloid darlings that have been wheeled out as role models for years, but their lives and their abilities are just as remote. Top-class athletes train hard and make sacrifices, yes, but they’re also genetic freaks. They’re not built like the rest of us. The old bromide that athletes always wheel out, “All you have to do is want it enough and work hard enough, and you can achieve your dream!” is just as much nonsense now as it ever was.

The only time I can ever remember enjoying games lessons was for a spell in middle school, when we did track and field and tried out all the different events. There were badges awarded for meeting various nationally-set standards (bronze, silver and gold, obviously), but you were also encouraged to improve your personal best in each event, so instead of competing against each other you were competing against yourself. That was ace.

But the rest of the time? No.

This nonsense about encouraging competition makes no difference if you’re shit at sport and hate having to display your ineptitude. What needs to be done is to encourage people to enjoy physical activity, whatever it is. After that, we can move on to the joys of winning well and the necessity of losing well.

And this nonsense about individual changing rooms for girls is tied into a much bigger debate about society as a whole. It links to the idea that sport isn’t feminine, that high-achieving sportswomen are somehow like men, that muscles aren’t for women, the images pushed by the media that slim and conventionally attractive create the only acceptable form of femininity – yes, it’s yet another question of body image. If girls are scared to display their bodies, this isn’t sport’s fault – this is society’s fault.

I’m not denying that sport is still sexist – even in this “most equal Olympics ever”, there are still hundreds more men competing, and the men still have scores more events than women to compete in. If girls are inspired by seeing the likes of Ennis and Laura Trott and Steph Houghton and Nicola Adams and Katherine Grainger, then that’s terrific. We all need to be active in our everyday lives – if everyone can find a sport they fancy trying out, that’s wonderful.

But one thing I would also flag up – enjoying sport isn’t just about winning, nor even about participation, it’s also about spectating. If men and women watch sport together, then trying out sport (in whatever guise) will be the natural progression for the next generation. Sure, watching sport doesn’t have quite the same cardiovascular effect, but females need to feel that watching all sport is for them, just as participating in all sport should be for them – because sport is for everyone.


About K

YA writer. Voracious reader. Feminist. Home educator. Addicted to tea and Twitter.

5 comments on “On the Olympics, sports in schools, and new female role models, by Carrie Dunn

  1. diane
    August 13, 2012

    Ugh, I always dreaded PE so much, because I was terrible at sport, too. But it was the whole atmosphere of compulsory activity that I really hated: the grumpy teachers who couldn’t understand why some of us weren’t enjoying ourselves, particularly at activities where we were singled out in an embarrassing way (rounders, cricket, trampolining, for the love of God). It was only very recently that I realised the point of it probably wasn’t to make me feel humiliated.

    If there had been more focus on individual progress rather than comparison to natural athletes, and if we didn’t live in a culture that encourages us to scrutinise female bodies all the time, maybe I’d have been less self-conscious.

    • Keris
      August 13, 2012

      I still shudder at the thought of fielding in rounders. Seeing the ball coming towards me and knowing I was expected to catch it and most likely wouldn’t. And then hearing the “Gnnnnnn!” when it just missed me (“The sun was in my eyes!”) That was secondary school, but not long ago, Harry mentioned that he didn’t like playing rounders because he wasn’t good at it and he was worried about letting his friends down. Made me do a little cry.

      But, yes, individual progress would be good. Also, some sort of alternative – not quite sport v Dungeons and Dragons as I saw mentioned Twitter – but maybe if you don’t want to play, say, hockey, you could do yoga or something?

      And, yes, gym knickers and communal changing/showers would have to go.

  2. diane
    August 13, 2012

    For me it was batting in rounders that was the issue (in fielding, I just headed way into the outfield where the ball would never go. It was better for everyone.) I hated it from junior school, too, and could never understand why some kids would be so happy when we’d finish early and have an impromptu rounders session on sunny days. I just wanted to do my work! 😉

    The one thing I’m grateful for, as smelly as it might have made us, was that our changing room showers had broken years ago and there was no funding to repair them.

    I do agree that a choice of sports would be great, or even something like Rory did on Gilmore Girls — where she chose a sport for the term (she did golf) and it wasn’t necessarily held in the school at all, as long as she got her sheet signed. People could do anything from yoga to roller derby, and actually enjoy themselves!

    • Keris
      August 13, 2012

      Oh, don’t get me wrong – I was cack at batting as well! But, yes, the Rory way sounds ace.

  3. Pingback: I can’t tonight, I’m washing my hair « Bea

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This entry was posted on August 13, 2012 by in Bea Current, Bea Feminist, Bea Healthy, Bea Sporty and tagged , , .
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