Clare Balding: “Female faces will dominate the British medal haul in 2012”

The BBC presenter says women in sport are 900 years behind men - but they're catching up fast...

I love sport, have lived a life immersed in sport, have presented at four Olympics, three Paralympics, three Winter Olympics, but even I had no idea how modern sport became what it is today. 

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I know the Greeks loved their male-only, naked grappling and started the Olympics, the Romans built gymnasia in their houses and the French invented tennis, but no one did organisation and rule-making quite like the Victorians in Blighty.

Society
The British invented codified sport, wrote the rules and exported football, rugby union and cricket around the Commonwealth. But would those visionaries, with their belief in the benefits of healthy competition, have recognised the huge, all-consuming beast that sport is today?

I imagine, however, that they wouldn’t be so surprised to discover that sport has had an impact on society outside the confines of the pitch, track or pool. Because they understood that the lessons learnt on the playing fields went far beyond understanding the rules of the game. And having immersed myself in the history of British sport for my new series, it’s obvious to me that sport can bring about social change.

There is every chance that the three big faces of the London Olympics will be female: Rebecca Adlington in swimming, Jessica Ennis in athletics and Victoria Pendleton in cycling. There may have been no women deemed worthy of the final ten for Sports Personality of the Year 2011, but female faces will dominate the British medal haul in 2012.

Bear in mind that while men have been playing sport for over 1,000 years, often as part of military training, women’s sport has only existed for a hundred years or so. 

Men
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the mastermind behind the modern Olympics, believed the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect”. In 1900, 11 women were allowed to compete in tennis and golf. In 1912, women’s swimming was introduced and in 1924, women were finally allowed to enter athletics events. 

Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen was the star of the 1948 London Olympics when she won four gold medals, but it would have been more if women had been allowed to run further than 200m. 

During the First World War, a munitions factory – Dick, Kerr and Co in Preston – was among those that encouraged its female work-force to play sport, and their football team proved themselves capable and entertaining. They were attracting crowds of over 20,000 and achieved a 53,000 sell-out at Goodison Park on Boxing Day 1920. Their star player, Lily Parr, was a household name, they were the first women’s team to go on foreign tours and they took on men’s teams. 

Then the FA banned women from playing on their pitches, saying the game of football was “quite unsuitable for females”. The ban stood for 50 years until 1971.

In more recent times, the freedom of women to play sport – to wear clothing that allows the body to move, to show emotion and a competitive instinct – is still a symbol of freedom.

Sport is about more than kicking, catching or hitting a ball. It has the power to change lives.

Clare Balding presents Sport and the British on BBC Radio 4, Monday-Friday at 1:45pm

This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 24 January