In March, male and female cricket teams from across the world descended upon India, where the men’s and women’s World Twenty20 competitions were played simultaneously. The International Cricket Council funded all the men’s teams to fly business class, but only paid for the women’s teams to fly economy class.
The integration of the men’s and women’s tournaments only highlighted how differently competitors were treated. The total prize money for the men’s event was $5.6m – 16 times the $400,000 for the women’s tournament.
The roots of this discrepancy lie in the birth of modern sport, 150 years ago. Victorian society viewed sport as “inseparable from the philosophy of Muscular Christianity, which defined itself against femininity and ‘softness’,” says Tony Collins, the author of Sport in Capitalist Society. It did not think much of the notion of women playing.
Nor did Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic Games, in 1896. He described women’s sport as “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate” and advocated that the games be reserved for women, though a few females were allowed to compete from 1900. In 1921, the Football Association in England deemed the sport “quite unsuitable for females” and banned its clubs from loaning pitches to women.
Women’s treatment in sport has always been a manifestation of wider gender inequality and, as sports evolved and professionalised, became self-perpetuating. The huge funding disparity between male and female sport means that women have had fewer opportunities to play sport, have suffered from inadequate coaching and facilities compared with those enjoyed by men, and have been paid meagre sums, even for playing international sport. This has damaged the quality of sport – and therefore the attractiveness of the product to fans and broadcasters – in two ways. Those that have played have often not been professional, so had less chance to hone their skills; and the lack of financial rewards mean that many leading players have retired prematurely.
Women’s sport has been shaped by administration being almost exclusively a male preserve. This explains why, from 1928 to 1960, women were not allowed to compete in races of more than 200 metres, because it was felt that running for longer made them too tired. It took until 1984 for women to make up one-fifth of competing athletes in the Olympics.
Other bodies have been no more welcoming to female athletes. “Let’s get women to play in different and more feminine garb than the men,” Sepp Blatter, who was president of FIFA for 17 years, said in 2004. He wanted women to play “in tighter shorts,” because “beautiful women play football nowadays, excuse me for saying so”. Only in 1998 did the Marylebone Cricket Club, the custodians at Lord’s, lift its ban on female members. Others institutions continue to resist: two months ago, the Muirfield Golf Club, one of Scotland’s most celebrated courses, recently voted to uphold its ban on women members.
Some tentative progress in gender equality is now being made off the pitch: 30 per cent of those sitting on the boards of sports organisations funded by Sport England are now women, up from 21 per cent in 2009. Advances have been slower around the world: almost half of National Olympic Committees surveyed by the IOC have fewer than 20 per cent of women on their Executive Boards, including ten nations who had no women at all.
On the field, equal prize money is becoming more common. The World Athletics Championships equalised prize money in 1995 and all grand slam tennis tournament have paid male and female champions equally since Wimbledon begun doing so in 2007. Globally, 25 out of 35 major sports pay equal prize money to men and women, found a BBC survey in 2014. Olympians are still not paid prize money by the Games, although most countries offer their medal winners prize money, and sums are equal for men and women. […]
It is arguable that a greater proportion of Nigeria’s sporting success is attributable to women. …