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Sunday 5 August 2012

What even brave Katie can't beat

You can't blame the media or sponsors for concentrating on male Olympic events, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

So tomorrow Katie Taylor, all nine stone or so of her, will compete for Ireland at the Olympics in the lightweight (60 kg) women's boxing category. As I write, Paddy Power is offering the distinctly unattractive odds of 1/25, which is no surprise since she's the world champ.

In a very honest blog in Friday's Daily Telegraph, Andrew Brown wrote of his discomfiture in watching Gemma Gibbons win a silver in judo for GB. Both contestants, he said, "showed pure, naked, fierce, animalistic aggression of a sort that one doesn't naturally associate with women" and he worried about "their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises" and winced at the thought of his daughters fighting on a mat. But he got used to it after a few minutes. "But, then, you can get used to anything, can't you?"

I won't have the chance to get used to our Katie knocking seven bells out of her opponents, since I'm too squeamish even to look at violent sports. But I rejoice that she's there to demonstrate female courage, skill and determination in yet another arena, for this is the first Olympics in which women are allowed to box. In 1900, women were restricted to tennis or golf. Nowadays there are few sports they're kept out of, but it's been a long, long battle. It took women's work in two world wars to drastically alter the view of the civilised world that we were fragile creatures who might disintegrate if allowed to exert ourselves.

There are loud complaints about 'sexism' at these Olympics, focusing on the comparatively small numbers of women contestants, the shortage of sponsorship and the bias of the media towards covering male sports except when the Phwoar! factor kicks in with events like women's beach volleyball. In truth, there's little that can be done about that. Of course, there's the occasional female athlete who could defeat most men, but they're so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Men are stronger than women and will always run faster, jump higher, throw further and all the rest of it. You can't blame the sponsors or the media for wanting to concentrate on what the majority wants, and men are much keener on sport than women.

However, they shouldn't underestimate the discernment of the public. For instance, during a fallow period in men's tennis, fans learned to prefer the grace, subtlety and sneakiness of the women's game.

A good indicator is the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, awarded on the basis of a popular vote on a shortlist selected by newspapers and magazines.

Last year there was understandable outrage at a 10-strong all-male shortlist in a year of some outstanding female achievements, but that was the fault of those who made the nominations. John and Jane Public have less macho-baggage than have most sports reporters. Three out of the last 10 winners have been women (Zara Phillips, who beat all-comers in the World Equestrian Games, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and Olympic double-champ Kelly Holmes).

This year it's hard to imagine anyone beating the redoubtable Bradley Wiggins after his triumph in the Tour de France and his gold medal, but there will be a respectable vote for any women on the list. Did you observe the drooling over PE teacher Helen Glover and army captain Heather Stanning who won a rowing gold? The public don't simply look at sporting prowess. They love a story, they cleave to some personalities, they love grit and resilience against all odds.

Sport is innately good. It's good for our health, it's good for character building and it's good for opening our eyes to a bitter world. In many respects, the Olympics are a scandal. Yet better the Games exist than that they don't. That the officials and fat cats are hogging the roads and filling up the most expensive hotels is an irritation, but it doesn't detract from the sheer drama of the events watched by breathless spectators all over the globe.

The job of parents, teachers, commentators, politicians and anyone else of influence is to encourage children to watch, to play, to compete and to try to be as good as they possibly can at whatever sport grips their imagination. Those winners who become role models for the next generation are doing incalculable good by making discipline, ambition and tenacity popular.

Unlike Katie Taylor, who had a supportive family, many of them have had to overcome terrible obstacles and deprivations. But Katie has triumphantly run with every opportunity given her in football and boxing and other sports formerly ruled off-limits for a girl and will be an inspiration to the young.

Go, Katie, go.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards