The inherent gender binaries in sport have meant that it has been and remains to this day a public sphere particularly prone to misogyny, both explicit and implicit. The latest in the line of chauvinistic high-profile sporting figures is the Russian Shamil Tarpischev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation and a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1994. On a TV chat show, he referred to Serena and Venus Williams as “the Williams Brothers”, comments which Serena described as “very insensitive and extremely sexist”. Far from offering a full and frank apology, Tarpischev described his comments as a “joke” before claiming that what he had said had been blown out of proportion. Notwithstanding such side splitting jokes, the silence of the International Tennis Federation – under whose authority he falls – is far more worrying than the lazy and tired stereotyping of one ignorant individual.
The sacking of Richard Keys and Andy Gray aside, there is little sign that sport as a cooperative is taking sexism seriously. Examples abound, but take the tennis commentator John Inverdale, who, during Wimbledon 2013, magnanimously postulated that Marion Bartoli was “never going to much of a looker”; or Richard Scudamore, the CEO of the Premier League, whose incisive wit was illustrated in email exchanges which joked about the irrationality of women with children, and about keeping a female colleague “off your shaft”. Both kept their jobs, and all was forgotten.
To say that sexism is not endemic to sport would be to give it far too fair a hearing. Even to ignore the questions about whether women should be able to compete in F1, or be part of the Tour de France, or participate in a woman’s decathlon (the answer to all three is yes), can anyone, for example, justify the male only membership policy of Muirfield golf club, the 16 times host of The Open? Admittedly, a private society can restrict membership however it likes, but would it be so hard for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to host the championships elsewhere? The idea that women cannot compete in the same way as men is condescending; the idea that women cannot appreciate sport in the same way as men is completely absurd.
With only 2% of mainstream sports coverage dedicated to women’s sport, the usual cry of “men’s sport is just more interesting” is superficial and not capable of waving away the problem. People aren’t interested enough, quite simply because women’s sport doesn’t get the coverage it deserves. Arguments about the differences in quality between genders hold no water, since even if this is the case in some sports, plenty of people would happily watch Morecambe v Exeter over a premier league match. No one watched Jessica Ennis-Hill crown off her Olympic Heptathlon victory in the 800m, and thought, well she’s a bit slow.
Gender divisions within sport are a real problem with real effects – despite a recent upturn caused by the Olympics, participation rates by women remain far lower than government targets. It is the sporting bodies who fail to react sufficiently to instances of sexism, along with blockheads like Shamil Tarpischev, who only further entrench such divisions.