What a summer it’s been for women’s sport. Every time you turn on the TV there’s been some fleet-footed, mighty, impossibly skilled woman running at the speed of light, or whacking the hell out of a ball – or an opponent.
We’ve had the tennis, as usual. We’ve just had the athletics World Championships, which take place every two years. We’ve also had the cricket World Cup, with England’s dramatic last-gasp victory, followed by the football European Championship, with England’s Lionesses devastated in the semi-final.
Now we’ve got the women’s rugby union World Cup, which has reached the semi-final stage. And as the summer unfolds, we realise that there are two pieces of simultaneous education going on. The first is among the players: every year women get better at sport. The improvement is steep – it’s as if the top athletes are making up for a century and a half of lost opportunities. What was unthinkable in women’s sport even a few years ago is now routine.
The second bit of education is ours. We’re getting better at watching, judging and understanding women’s sport. This is because there’s a good deal of it around these days, much of it free to air. As satellite buys up mainstream sports and turns some of them into backwater sports, so others come in to fill the vacuum and give unexpected delight to its audiences. Women’s rugby is a classic example.
England Captain Sarah Hunter
We’re getting better at watching women’s sport because the more we watch, the less we compare it to the men’s versions. It’s a shocking fact, but men and women are different. So they quite often do things in different ways. But that does not invalidate either way.
Dr Johnson famously said that a woman preaching was like a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Most of us – there are always a few hold-outs, but pay them no mind – have grown beyond the Doctor when we watch women play sport.
To criticise women’s rugby on the grounds that women are not as powerful or as fast as men is like the way people criticise feminists and female politicians for being “shrill”. Women’s voices do tend to be higher than men’s; that doesn’t mean they can’t talk sense.
Martina Navratilova revolutionised sport, and not just for women. She was one of the first high-profile athletes who understood that being at the top of your chosen sport has to be a lifestyle. Everything you do – from sleeping to eating and drinking – has to be about sport. “I turned off the head,” she once told me. “I never, ever turned off the body.” It’s good to relax the mind and take it away from sport – but neglect your physical preparation, and you’ve handed your opponent an advantage.
That’s how top performers in sport work now – and the women we see this week forming rucks and mauls and bursting out of tackles are no exception. Women’s sport has come a long way since Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, said that the function of women in sport was to crown the victors with laurels. It’s still got a long way to go – which is all the more reason to watch it.
By Simon Barnes
Women’s Rugby Union World Cup is on Tuesday at 4.30pm and 7.30pm on ITV4