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.”