Three summers ago, as we watched fireworks explode over the East End of London for the closing ceremony of an Olympic Games that had captivated a nation, we didn’t honestly know what the legacy of London 2012 would be. Regeneration, investment, grassroots sport, a healthier and more active nation, all of these were hoped for, and much discussed.
Looking back now, the legacy is clear as day. London 2012 changed women’s sport forever. The female sporting heroes that graced that stage – Jessica Ennis-Hill, Laura Trott, Hannah Cockroft, Charlotte Dujardin, Nicola Adams – prompted a momentous cultural transformation that normalised women excelling at sport. And brought about a hunger from the general public to see more of them.
To its credit, sport – that traditionally conservative arena that has stubbornly resisted gender equality well into the 21stcentury – responded. And what we’ve witnessed over the last few years is a crumbling of the old order of things and ideas.
In its place has grown a very new culture where in some sports women are – finally – beginning to turn professional. True, the wages are not anything like their male counterparts, but in football, cricket and now even rugby sevens women are being handed professional contracts that enable them to train full time, uninterrupted by work commitments.
In this process every quarter has played its part – from politicians banging the drum, to media organisations forced to reassess their coverage from a very new perspective. Best of all the general public, even those previously alienated by sport are taking an interest. Glamour magazine now dedicate space in each issue to women and sport, as well as having launched their own campaign, “Say No To Sexism in Sport”. Meanwhile, in traditional sports media, women have begun appearing on iconic programmes such as Match of the Day 2 extra, while sports editors have started keeping up with netball.
As elite sport slowly felt its way toward change, grassroots would not be left behind. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, depicting women of all shapes and sizes reclaiming sport and physical activity for themselves, had a huge impact with adverts on prime time TV and billboards across tube stations, major roads and bus stops. The slogans were powerful, sassy and cool. They had nothing to do with being beach body ready, but were instead all about being free from judgement from ourselves and others. For the first time ever in our culture women and girls were being offered a new way of relating to sport and exercise, and it felt great.
Is there more to do? Hell yeah. Until there are more bums on seats watching live women’s sport we simply won’t get the corporate investment that brings growth and increased media coverage.
But what the past few years has shown us is that things can change, and quickly. And that change in women’s sport and physical activity is not only morally important, or beneficial to our health, but culturally significant in the fight for gender equality that we pursue across all spheres.
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