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Did Wimbledon unmask lingering sexism in sport?

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As Simon Barnes of The Times wisely noted in the immediate aftermath of Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon on Sunday, the world has changed dramatically since Fred Perry won the men singles’ final at Wimbledon 77 years ago.

Virginia WadeIn the article titled “Murray ends 77 year wait for British win”, Barnes listed the ways in which society has changed “beyond recognition - in society, in politics, in population.” However, these huge leaps forward seem to have failed to include female athletes. Last weekend at Wimbledon, although wonderful and indeed ground-breaking, has also cast light on the shadow of sexism still looming over sport.  

Controversy has raged following careless headlines and news coverage that named Murray the “first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years” which is, of course, inaccurate: Virginia Wade was the last Briton to win the prestigious competition 36 years ago.

This imprecision has prompted debate over the status of female athletes and has brought into question progress made against sexism in sport. Chloe Angyal, the editor of Feministing, poignantly drew attention to the error on Twitter: “Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.”

However, although many have defended such headlines as innocuous, arguing that it is simply assumed that journalists and presenters meant the first British man to win in 77 years, this justification seems a little weak, particularly when faced with the reality that sexism has permeated the tournament as an uncomfortable yet generally accepted undercurrent.

And who can forget John Inverdale’s remarks following Marion Bartoli’s victory, about whether her father warned her that she would “never be a looker”?

Sadly, although these musings that echoed through households at prime time did inspire anger, the BBC still allowed him to commentate during the men’s singles final the next day following a fairly dubious apology.

Inverdale tried to save face claiming that "[Bartoli] is an incredible role model for people who aren't born with all the attributes of natural athletes". As it does logically follow that “natural” female athletes need to fulfil certain aesthetic specifications in order to win tournaments.

Perhaps we could dismiss Inverdale’s ill-thought out comments as the outlandish prattling of an amusingly ridiculous dinosaur, if not for the torrent of abuse unleashed on Twitter in the wake of Bartoli’s win.

 Comments included vile insults such as: “ugly bitch”, “Bartoli didn’t deserve to win because she is ugly” and “Bartoli wouldn’t even get raped.”  Bartoli has maintained a dignified silence, upholding that such jibes could not rob her of a victory that she had always “dreamed about”. However, this should not lessen our outrage that in light of her status as a female athlete, she has had to counter abuse based solely on her appearance following such a great achievement.

Sadly, even women sat as spectators could not escape assessment on similar criteria: cricketer Stuart Broad tweeted saying “don't really follow tennis, but well done Andy Murray on the quality of your Mrs.”

Yet, this objectification of Kim Sears merely mirrors her treatment by the media in recent weeks: coverage of Murray’s performance has often been coupled with an analysis of her wardrobe.

Charmingly, the tennis stars’ partners have even been compared and constrasted on aesthetic merit or, in the words of Stuart Broad, “quality”. Articles in The Times and the Daily Mail have fostered some bizarre form of competition between the women supporting their partners, placing great emphasis on how Djokovic’s girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, had dabbled in swimwear modelling and how Janowicz’ girlfriend, Marta Domachowska, had previously posed for Playboy, standards against which Sears was often viewed to be inadequate.

So, when faced with the question as to whether Wimbledon is still plagued by the spectre of sexism, we should ask ourselves whether male athletes have had to endure the same scrutiny that Bartoli faced, and whether male partners of female tennis placers have faced the same intrusive media interest? Have they also been paraded like prize ponies or badges of honour?

Although it is undeniable that as a society we have made great progress in the path towards equality, this does not mean that we should reject these incidents as trivial, or insignificant.

John Inverdale has tried to reject the importance of his comments made about Bartoli, diminishing them to the status of mere “clumsy phrase[s]”. Yet rather than revealing a careless use of words, his comment has captured the different pressures female athletes, and indeed players’ girlfriends, are burdened with, and the obstacles they still face. It seems the real endurance test for women in sport is not on the court, but in the media arena.




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