London 2012: Olympics used as motivation for British women

Soon after a trio of chiseled men in army boots and fatigues hops out of two vans in Hyde Park, women of various ages and sizes gather around. They’ve turned out for a 9 a.m. workout with British Military Fitness, a company that’s achieving on a micro-scale what the British government has largely struggled to do as the London Games approach: Get women moving.

In a culture consumed by men’s soccer, cricket and rugby, just one in eight British women exercise regularly, compared with one in five men, according to Sport England, a government agency that invests money from Britain’s national lottery in grass-roots initiatives aimed at adults. Among disadvantaged women, it’s one in 10.

Researchers have documented myriad reasons why, both practical and cultural, including the perception among many British women that being active simply isn’t attractive.

Sports aren’t an integral part of public education in Britain but rather a luxury of the privileged, who enjoy superior facilities, coaching and competition on the well-tended playing fields of private schools. That largely explains why more than one-third of British Olympians in the 2008 Beijing Games were privately educated.

And when it comes to girls’ attitudes about sports, cultural pressures compound issues of class, with young women in Britain traditionally encouraged to be passive, decorative and thin as opposed to healthy. Blame it on this generation’s Twiggy, supermodel Kate Moss, who famously boasted, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

The United States has confronted similar issues but had greater success tackling them with the legislative stick known as Title IX, which since 1972 has mandated equal opportunity for girls and boys, young women and men, in schools receiving federal funds.

With no analogous law in Britain, funding and support for women’s sports has suffered by comparison, said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, the nation’s leading advocacy group for women’s sports.

“We’ve never had the culture shock of Title IX, and you see that in British sport,” Tibballs said. “We look with envy at the fact that the brave step was taken in the United States. And we concede with pleasure the consequences — particularly in American women’s soccer, which we understand would just not be in the place it is had Title IX not happened.”

Generation gap

Here in Hyde Park, dozens of enthusiastic women don color-coded bibs that indicate their fitness level, form three groups accordingly, and start jogging the parking lot upon command.

“Shoulders back! Knees high! Head up! Chin up!” barks Paul, one of the instructors, with just the right touch of encouragement. “Pick it up, ladies! Go a little bit quicker. Good stuff!”

Then he jogs off toward a hill carrying a backpack laden with water bottles for his class, and the blue-bibbed group falls in line.

A former royal hunting ground in one of London’s more affluent neighborhoods, Hyde Park makes a lovely setting for an hour-long exercise class. Push-ups, sit-ups and shadow boxing don’t seem as arduous against a backdrop of swans gliding around lakes and Londoners trotting by on horseback. But there’s no mistaking an essential hook of British Military Fitness for many female participants.

“Hot men in uniform!” one of the instructors says with a laugh. “And they don’t have to work out next to some sweaty bloke or some perv in a gym.”

Last year, Sport England invested roughly $15.5 million in 20 projects designed to coax women back to playing fields and arenas — particularly mothers and disadvantaged women, who say they lack the time and energy for sports. It’s a small fraction of Sport England’s total budget, but it’s regarded as seed money to cultivate many ideas in hopes that a few bear fruit.

Among the more promising projects is Netball in the City, which organizes games for women in low-income urban areas. A variant of basketball without backboards, netball is a gym-class staple in British schools, and Netball in the City tries to rekindle a love of the sport by placing a premium on fun, providing child care and not requiring the ugly uniforms that research indicates spoil gym class for many British girls.

“We’ve not got that coach with clipboard and whistle,” said Phil Smith, Sport England’s director of sport. “It’s not regimented and disciplined. And it’s not necessarily about winning tournaments.”

According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, Britain’s athletic gender gap starts in school, at some point after age 10, when myriad cultural factors dissuade girls from continuing in sports.

Just more than half of girls recently surveyed by the University of Loughborough’s Institute for Youth Sport said their experiences in gym class “put them off” being active. Only one-fourth felt it was “cool” to play sports or be good at it. And 30 percent said they didn’t like their gym outfits.

Said Tibballs: “Sports are still seen broadly as a male kind of activity. By and large, girls and boys get pushed into different activities. For boys, mainly football, cricket and rugby. For girls, ballet and horse riding.

“But it’s beginning to change among young people. Quite a lot see football as a sport for girls and boys. Netball, too. If anything, there is a mismatch between how the young see sport and old.”

Raising a profile

Still, it’s Britain’s older generation that controls the purse strings and dictates media coverage of sports. With no legal compulsion for equitable treatment, traditional sports for men rule the day.

Women’s pro sports are virtually nonexistent. Despite the national passion for soccer, a professional women’s league was launched only last year.

At the college level, team sports are in a nascent phase. That partly explains why the 20 Olympic medals won by British women at the 2008 Beijing Games tended to be in individual sports such as cycling, swimming, track, equestrian, rowing and sailing.

Women’s sports also get scant attention in the British media, accounting for less than 5 percent of total sports coverage, according to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. The august BCC was criticized last November for failing to include a single woman among its 10 nominees for sports personality of the year, snubbing swimming stars Rebecca Adlington and Keri-Anne Payne, who won gold at the world championships in Shanghai.

But there was no lack of coverage when the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, visited Britain’s field hockey team at Olympic Park this spring. Captain of her high school field hockey team, the duchess took a few well-placed whacks at the ball, and flashbulbs erupted.

The sporting exploits of the duchess’s younger sister, Pippa, a scholarship athlete in college, have been documented nearly as enthusiastically. The younger Middleton has credited her toned physique to Pilates, turning her instructor into an instant celebrity, and recently completed a team triathlon and cross-country ski marathon.

The two women’s sway over the British public might do as much to spur a fitness craze as any public-policy initiative.

“It certainly helps that high-profile women are active, and it would be great to see Kate or Pippa breaking into a sweat during a run or cycle, for example,” says Danielle Sellwood, co-founder of Sportsister, a British publication aimed at inspiring more girls and women to lead healthy, active lives. But it’s just one of many elements she feels are required to change attitudes about women’s sports in Britain.

“There’s no single quick fix,” says Sellwood, enumerating a wish list that includes broader media coverage of female athletes, wider offerings of sports in schools, more girls who are reared by physically active mothers and a greater selection of stylish, affordable sports gear.

“The Olympics are having an effect, there is no doubt about it. But it is only one piece of the jigsaw.”

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