Baron Coubertain once said that women only have one role in sport: to hang garlands around the necks of champions. And he added: "Feminine sport is impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Pierre de Coubertain was the founder of the Olympic Games as we know them today.
We don't know what the response to his words would have been more than 120 years ago, but they certainly weren’t very sporting. Now they would cause a scandal. However, perhaps we should bear in mind that there are still certain attitudes even today which affect the relationship between women and competitive sport, especially in the battle for equality.
It’s ‘easy’ to feature on the front pages of newspapers. You only have to win a European championship, or something like that. Sometimes, though, even that is not enough to be given the same level of attention. On Sunday night the Spanish women’s basketball team won a gold medal when they beat France 71-55 in the final at the O2 arena in Prague. Families and fans were there to watch, and so were the president of the Spanish Basketball Federation, Jorge Garbajosa, and José Ramón Lete, Secretary of State for Sport. They were, however, the only institutional representatives present.
In contrast, about two years ago, when the men’s team won the same title at the Eurobasket championship in France, the group led by Pau Gasol were honoured by the presence of King Felipe VI and the deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
On 11 June, King Emeritus Juan Carlos watched Rafa Nadal’s 10th victory at Roland Garros, and a week before that he also attended the Champions final between Juventus and Real Madrid, in the company of prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the minister for Education, Culture and Sport, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo. Comparisons are said to be odious, but...
“Goodness, the girls had the Secretary of State for Sport there. Well, that’s something! People like that don’t normally come to watch me compete,” says Ruth Beitia, the high jump champion who has won 16 medals in international competitions, including six golds, the latest one at the Olympics in Rio last year. Ruth, a Partido Popular MP in Cantabria, stresses that “the Senior Sports Council is working hard on behalf of women”, but she can’t hide the fact that there is still a barrier which she would love to break through.
“We have taken giant steps forward in women’s sport, especially in the Olympics, where we do really well, but it seems that in the four years afterwards everyone just forgets about us,” she says. “I believe people like women’s sport and we represent our country as well as the men.” She is convinced that social media is helping women’s sport a great deal these days: “it’s like a shop window for us,” she explains.
Ruth is one of the more visible faces in the competitive eclosion of women in Spain, together with names like Mireia Belmonte, Carolina Marín, Garbiñe Muguruza, the rugby team, which were also European champions last year... It is a long list, and some of the information is striking.
The women basketball players have spent five years winning different competitions and have won 12 medals since 1993, the same number as the acclaimed men’s team during the same period. Even more than that: women won nine of the 17 medals achieved by the Spanish athletes in Rio de Janeiro. Four years previously, at the Olympic Games in London, women won 11 of the 17 Spanish medals.
Eli Pinedo is a former player with the handball team. She retired a year ago after winning some important international medals, including the bronzes in the World Championships in 2011 and the Olympics in London in 2012.
“With women’s sport we already know that you have to do more with less in order to be visible. I think women athletes are doing things well, they are achieving important successes. Women’s sport is becoming more popular, but we still have fewer resources and less institutional support. We are moving forwards, but there is still a lot to do before we are equal. I have played in finals where there has been nobody at all from our country there to watch, except our families,” she says. “With every success we achieve, we take a small step forward. If the results aren’t good, though, it’s as if we’re invisible.”
That visibility was the subject of a thesis, ‘Women and sport in the media. A study of the Spanish sporting press (1979-2010)’ with which Clara Sainz de Baranda, professor at the Carlos III University, received her doctorate ‘cum laude’.
In this study, which was published in 2013 and analysed the four main daily sports papers in Spain, two in Madrid and two in Barcelona, she concluded that women only featured in 5.11 per cent of articles in these newspapers. As the exclusive subject, they only featured in 2.18 of cases. “Not much has changed since then,” she says, and the situation appears to be similar elsewhere in the world.
“First they used to say that women didn’t win, and that was proven false. Then they said people didn’t like watching women’s sport, and then that there was no room to feature it. Well, there is plenty of room in the digital versions of those four papers, a great deal of space, in fact, but it hasn’t made any difference. Women are treated better now, yes. The information about them is better, but there has been no real quantitive increase in coverage.”
And what about the spectators? Actually, the numbers are extremely positive. 5,563,000 people watched the basketball final on Sunday, with an average of 1,470,000 (10.3 per cent of the ‘share’) and 2.3 million in the follow-up to the match. The same team achieved similar figures when they won a silver medal in Rio. “We attract up to 2.5 million spectators when we play in a final,” says Eli Pinedo.
There is no doubt about it. Pierre de Coubertain got it very, very wrong indeed.