Fiona McCade: Sexism and female athletes

Rebecca Adlington has won two gold and two bronze Olympic medals. Picture: Getty
Rebecca Adlington has won two gold and two bronze Olympic medals. Picture: Getty
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Can we really have gone backwards since the sexist Seventies when it comes to how we see our female athletes, asks Fiona McCade

When I was a child, the famous sportswomen of the day were people like Mary Peters and Martina Navratilova. They were really, really good at their jobs. Everybody admired them, because they were really good at their jobs. Perhaps some people were asking the question: “Mary Peters: hot or not?” It’s possible, but it wasn’t important, or newsworthy. Mary Peters was a gold medal-winning Olympian. She didn’t have to be hot, she just had to be excellent, and she was. Everybody was happy.

Forty-odd years later, not everybody is as happy with pure excellence as they once were. According to some reports, the two-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington has had a nose job. If she has, I don’t blame her. Not because she needed to change a thing – she didn’t – but because if I’d been under the sort of pressure she has suffered, I think I would have done the same.

Like Mary Peters once was, Rebecca Adlington is a young, determined girl, with a beautiful, strong body that has taken her to the peak of her profession. She is a top-class athlete; she is the very best, the absolute epitome of achievement. She is Britain’s most successful swimmer – ever. She is amazing.

But she doesn’t always see what we see; she sees someone “not particularly attractive” with “a very big nose”.

Anybody watching the amazing Ms Adlington on last year’s I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! will have realised that all was not well in the mind of this sporting goddess. She found herself in the jungle with a former Miss Universe and visibly struggled with having to co-exist with this traditional vision of female pulchritude.

Rebecca, a woman who wore a swimsuit to conquer the world, quailed before a woman who wore a swimsuit to walk up and down and smile. Ideally, the beauty queen would have doffed her crown to the girl with real talent, the girl who actually got her swimsuit wet in pursuit of genuine glory, but in real life, it didn’t work out that way.

It was no surprise that Rebecca was racked with insecurity. The so-called comedian Frankie Boyle had already taken two very public pot-shots at her, trying to demean her achievements by criticising her looks, and he wasn’t alone. “Most of the negative comments on Twitter are about my nose,” she told one interviewer, wondering: “Why do people judge me for the way I look? It’s not as if I was trying to be a model.”

Can it really be true that in the hideously sexist, discrimination-riddled Seventies, it was easier than it is now for a woman to triumph without her looks being an issue? Or was it just because I was so young that I never noticed Martina Navratilova’s FHM underwear shoot?

Social media has a lot to answer for. If people in the past felt that sportswomen weren’t gorgeous enough, they probably said so quietly, over a pint and just to their mates. Now, they can say it in so many globe-traversing ways that the sportswomen themselves can hardly avoid finding out about it.

It’s now so easy to indulge in mean and superficial criticism on a mass scale, even respected sporting commentators forget themselves, like last year, when the BBC’s tennis pundit John Inverdale asked BBC Radio 5 Live listeners: “Do you think [Marion] Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little: ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’.”

Inverdale said later: “We poked fun, in a nice way, about how she looks”, but why? Every Wimbledon winner needs fighting spirit. It’s a given. As information, Inverdale’s comment about Bartoli was redundant, so “fun” was the only possible reason for making it. But fun for whom?

Luckily, Bartoli’s confidence was iron-clad and she laughed it off, saying: “I invite this journalist to come and see me in a ball gown and heels and, in my opinion, I think he may change his mind.”

Besides, she had weathered much, much worse. One of the kinder tweets about her said: “Bartoli didn’t deserve to win because she is ugly”.

Whether this kind of bullying happens via Twitter, or “comedy”, or good, old-fashioned poking “fun”, the aim is always the same – to reduce true greatness down to something more mundane, more easily handled by people who are intimidated by greatness. And every time we let this happen, some young girl, somewhere, thinks: “I’m not attractive enough to be a champion. They’ll say awful things about me. Maybe I shouldn’t even try.”

I’ve never been bullied, but I must admit that I have wasted many an hour examining my facial imperfections and wondering what I’d look like with a little help from the surgeon’s knife.

I want to believe that if I were a world-famous, world-beating athlete, I’d be above (not to mention too busy for) such petty little superficialities, but I doubt it.

Rebecca Adlington may be a sporting superstar, but she is first and foremost a woman, and when she says: “Every day I look in the mirror and go, ‘God, I’m not pretty’”, every woman’s heart must surely go out to her. Mine certainly does.

However, I think Marion Bartoli summed up what’s really important when she said: “Did I dream about having a model contract? No, I’m sorry. Did I dream about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

Sport should be a pretty-free zone. Given all the pressures that come with just being female, sport should be an opportunity for girls to have fun, to get messy and sweaty, and concentrate on stretching themselves physically and mentally. It should be a place where they don’t need to worry about what they look like.

And it should certainly be a place where they are safe and free from sniping comments about bits of their bodies that don’t conform to someone else’s idea of beauty.