The Not-So-Easy Life of a Hockey WAG (Part II)

the no.1 fan

A year on from my World Cup adventures in The Hague, I’m getting ready for another fortnight of nerves and excitement in my capacity as a hockey WAG. This time around, I’m not able to travel over to watch in the stadium and to be quite honest, I’m not actually sure if this is better or worse. A few quiet days at home since the boys went to Belgium has given me some time to consider the pros and cons of cheering the boys on from here instead.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first…
It just doesn’t feel like I’m supporting properly if I’m not actually there. Having said that, I’ll be honest – I’m not really much of a cheerleader. I’ll probably make more noise watching in my own living room than I would in the stadium, so I don’t expect my vocal support will be overly missed.

I’ll miss the camaraderie of supporting alongside the parents and families of the lads… I’m sure I’ll be able to coerce a few friends and fellow WAGs into watching the games together on TV, but I’ll miss being part of the regular supporters gang and of course hanging around to see the boys after each game like a starstruck teenager at a pop concert. Don’t worry, the hero worship stops pretty abruptly when they start filtering out in dodgy-looking lycra recovery leggings (or worse, un-showered).

On the plus side…
I’ll save myself a bit of money. To be a fully paid up member of the travelling WAG club, you have to budget for planes, trains, beers and waffles (unavoidable refreshment choices when in Belgium – it’d be rude not to). Sitting on the sofa drinking multiple cups of tea – or something stronger if required to celebrate or commiserate – is cheaper and doesn’t require a pre-planned half time queuing strategy.

I won’t have to worry about wearing a raincoat and sensible shoes. I am at extremely low risk of sunburn or being soaked by a water cannon. If I want to, I can watch the boys play at 3pm on Sunday in my PJs and no one will judge me. I mean, I’ll obviously be wearing my GB shirt and waving a Union Jack throughout, I’m just saying I could…

 
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter where I watch: if the boys do well, I’ll be just as delighted whichever side of the English Channel I’m sitting on. I’ve watched shootouts in the stadium and on TV and I can honestly say I was just as nervous (or spun in a more positive way, just as confident) both times. My role for the next couple of weeks is to be there in the background, supporting the team and letting the boy concentrate on his hockey safe in the knowledge that I’m watering the garden and keeping the cat alive. Behind every great hockey player is a… great WAG?

 

Good luck to the GB Hockey Boys!
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Why Do We Keep Forgiving Sport?

Why Do We Keep Forgiving Sport?

[*Edited version 11th November 2015*]
Another week, another explosion of shocking back page headlines. Athletics has faced some pretty big doping scandals in the past, but perhaps the latest will prove to be the sport’s biggest challenge yet. The possible scope of Russian drug-taking and corruption within the top levels of track and field governance are yet to be fully understood. New IAAF president Seb Coe certainly has a job on his hands. The reactions of both athletes and fans to negative stories like this range from shock and disbelief to outrage and anger. So why do we keep forgiving sport for its multitude of sins?

I’m a long way from perfect, but I’d like to believe that most of the time I can differentiate between right and wrong. However, when I think about some of the sportspeople I grew up idolising and many of the sports I continue to buy tickets and a Sky Sports subscription to watch, I realise I have sometimes been quick to put my moral compass to one side. My two biggest sporting heroes as a kid were Eric Cantona and Linford Christie. Despite his glittering football career, Cantona might be best known for kung-fu kicking someone in the crowd having been sent off against Crystal Palace in 1995. Christie won Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth sprint titles, but ended his career under the shadow of a positive drugs test for nandrolone. The problem for me is that I can’t really undo Christie’s Olympic gold at Barcelona 1992 as the first sports event I remember watching. I can’t forget the 10-year old me turning my collar up Cantona-style for football practice or attempting to run my 100m races without blinking or breathing, because that’s how Linford did it.

In the wider world of sport, the extent of doping in cycling exploded into the public consciousness a couple of years back. Perhaps we haven’t forgiven Lance Armstrong, but more road bikes and Lycra shorts are flying off the shelves than ever before. Meanwhile, FIFA has clearly been involved in some pretty dodgy dealing (to put it mildly) around World Cup bidding. Rumours abound that the IOC isn’t exactly squeaky clean on the bidding front either. This time last year, Luis Suarez was sent home from the World Cup in disgrace having bitten an opponent – he’s now being touted as one of Barca’s heroes. Almost three years ago, Oscar Pistorius won his sixth Paralympic gold medal – he’s now in jail in South Africa for culpable homicide.

The paragraph above illustrates that it can be all too easy to group sporting ‘sins’ clumsily together. I’m certainly not suggesting that all the examples I’ve cited can be directly compared – and I’m not trying to judge what is or isn’t forgivable. But each in its own way calls into question why we invest so much time, energy, emotion and money into sport given the depth of its darker side. What is this magical hold that sport seems to have over us?

It’s partly down to the fact that we love having something to talk about. There’s something inescapably satisfying about sitting on the sofa / in the pub / at a computer having a moan about how let down we feel, how sad it is, how we can’t believe this has happened. Half the time it’s not even gossip or a debate, everyone is simply regurgitating facts (and ‘facts’!) they have read somewhere, with a little emotion added for good measure. Talking about sport makes us feel more engaged in it. Put simply, talking about the good, bad and ugly of sport is fun.

Then there’s the concept of role models. There is often an expectation that sportspeople at the top of their respective games should be good human beings as well as good performers. I think this expectation creates an interesting debate in itself, but that’s not for now. There’s no doubt in my mind that the visibility of top-level sportspeople makes them role models to at least some degree. Ultimately, the majority of people who play, watch or coach sport want to see the best of the best. Performances on the field can give us something to aspire to and marvel at. That’s why Luis Suarez has been banned for alleged racist comments and for biting three fellow professionals, but is still allowed to play: he’s damn good at football, so people want to watch him.

Competition and the ambitions of people to become the best have created powerful and inspirational displays of physicality and human achievement across the history of sport. But in raising the stakes for performance, money, greed and fame have also become ingrained in the DNA of many sports. Fundamentally, we are all flawed and it stands to reason that sport is no different. My sister rightly pointed out to me that when bad things happen, it isn’t sport that’s in the wrong – it’s the people who play it and run it. However, to me, sport IS people. They inspire us, astonish us and motivate us… as well as sometimes leaving us disappointed and let down. We accept that people aren’t perfect – and therefore I think we accept that sport will never be perfect either.

Greed, corruption, cheating and some generally questionable morality are displayed just as regularly in sport as they are in ‘real life’. However, because sport seems to occupy a unique place in our social consciousness, we cut it a little more slack. Even when our most revered sporting events turn out to be run by a bunch of money-grabbing bad guys, or when our perceptions of what superhuman performance means are threatened, we can’t imagine life without them. I actually think there’s an argument that sport – whether we are watching, playing or talking about it – allows us to escape these same vices and corruptions in other spheres of life. We forgive sport to let us forget other things.

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[From first edit, June 2015]
Sport didn’t exactly cover itself in glory last week. Serena Williams, Stan Wawrinka, Women’s Sport Week and all-conquering Barcelona may beg to differ – but FIFA’s corruption, Sepp Blatter’s resignation and claims of doping in athletics on a BBC Panorama programme stole most of the newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Women’s Sport Week: What Does Equality Really Mean?

Women in sport

I’m going to kick off with a controversial-sounding sentence: I don’t like the existence of Women’s Sport Week. Don’t judge me just yet – I’ll explain what I mean by that in the course of this blog. But fundamentally, I wish it wasn’t happening and hopefully in the not too distant future we might talk about it in the past tense. “Do you remember ‘Women’s Sport Week’? It seems crazy we used to have that…”

If you haven’t yet noticed the extra column inches in the sports pages and the flurry of social media activity focused on sportswomen, perhaps you need a quick introduction to what the week is all about:

 ‘Women’s Sport Week (1-7 June 2015) is an opportunity for everybody to celebrate, raise awareness and increase the profile of women’s sport across the UK.’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/get-inspired/32916625

Essentially, this is another attempt to bridge the enormous gap between men and women’s sport. I probably should talk about ‘gaps’ in the plural – because there are lots of areas of inequality: media coverage, sponsorship, general perceptions, prize money, participation, the opportunities available in professional sport… and so the list goes on. I have a real internal battle about the increasing work to improve gender equality in sport. My idealistic side is what leads me to say I wish Women’s Sports Week (and other campaigns like it) didn’t exist. I suppose it’s really down to the fact that I wish we didn’t need them.

Sometimes it’s also about context. Tennis is a good example of this. I’m sure it’s true that Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic get more media interest because they are men. But it’s also because for the last decade, these four players in particular have generated amazing performance levels and fierce rivalries in the men’s game. Conversely, in women’s tennis, Serena Williams is just better than everyone else. Maria Sharapova – probably the second best player of this generation – has a 2/17 win/loss record against Serena, and hasn’t actually beaten her since their first two matches in 2004. There just isn’t quite the same drama. And so whilst I do want equality, I also want this to be determined by the quality of the tennis matches played and the battles between contemporary greats. Maybe in the next generation of players, four highly competitive, great tennis women will emerge to help bridge that gap for the right reasons.

It can also be about how easy it is to find and celebrate a female role model. This is of course largely down to the media and who they decide to dedicate those column inches and photographs to. Jessica Ennis-Hill is one of only a few genuine world superstars in British Athletics and competes in a discipline where we have historically been successful with Olympic gold medallists like Denise Lewis and Dame Mary Peters. It probably also helps that she seems to be a down-to-earth woman, she’s attempting a comeback after having her first baby, she doesn’t tend to stir up controversy, and she’s not exactly struggling in the looks department. But hang on – should women have to tick so many boxes to actually be seen in the media? Again, I’m a bit torn on this. I’m glad Ennis-Hill is talked about and regarded as a role model, but I wish I could believe she would be as popular and as famous if she was a bit more ‘bad ass’ and a bit less pretty.

Maybe I’m being narrow-minded to think that what a girl looks like when she plays sport doesn’t affect other women’s perceptions and likelihood to participate themselves. But for me, rosy cheeks, bloody knees and sweating don’t put me off. In my eyes, these things don’t make me less feminine or more masculine, they’re just one little part of a thing I do. Campaigns like ‘This Girl Can’ are trying to break down these barriers and hopefully getting more women involved in exercise will have a knock-on effect in some of the other areas of inequality. Last week, The Telegraph ran a feature on the GB Women’s Hockey team, which was largely based around a glamour photoshoot of several of the players. Whilst it was supposed to be a positive reflection on women’s sport and women’s hockey, this type of article remains a double-edged sword in so many ways. Dressing up to increase the profile, sponsorship and coverage of women’s sport may be important for growth; but it also reinforces the stereotypes that causes so many of these inequalities in the first place. As a friend of mine said,

“Can you imagine Diego Costa being asked to wear make up for a photoshoot and then telling him it will help broaden his appeal?”

It’s particularly difficult when we are pushing for equality on so many fronts. What do we actually want: More girls playing sport at grass roots level? As many column inches written on Arsenal Ladies as on Arsenal men? Top female sports stars to get the same recognition as their male counterparts irrespective of how many sets they play or their level of performance? Girls to take part and embrace getting sweaty, or girls to take part to prove you can do sport and still look classically pretty? Some of the battles we’re fighting don’t completely make sense to me, but that’s because I don’t believe all of them are about ‘equality’ per se.

The whole point is that genuine equality in sport should be about every kind of diversity, not having to push or overemphasise a given demographic. Clearly female sport has a long way to go, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that girls and women are the only ones who suffer from inequality. True ‘sport for all’ would mean that gender, disability, race, sexuality, religion, body image, age and culture don’t negatively influence anyone’s access to or experience of sport, or the way that is perceived by other people.

Of course, this is all going to be pretty difficult to achieve. Before the haters tell me this isn’t a reason not to try, I’m not saying Women’s Sport Week isn’t necessary at the moment and that our attempts to find equality aren’t important – they clearly are. I accept that sometimes unfairness, prejudice and bias are broken down only by these same qualities being applied in the opposite direction. I’ll enjoy seeing a few more successful, talented and inspirational women receive some well-deserved and important media attention this week. I’m just looking forward to a day when we don’t need to have a special week for women’s sport – because in the end, we are just running around, sweating, puffing, throwing, jumping, winning, losing and taking part too.

 

 

Click here to learn about Women’s Sport Week 2015 and how you can get involved: https://www.womeninsport.org/wsw2015/