Ed#454: Winning Women

21 March 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#454: Winning Women

There’s a slogan used on posters and placards by generations of anti-war demonstrators: It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a cake stall to buy a bomber.

I remember it in the context of Vietnam in the 1960s. Turning to the much less serious subject of sport, that slogan can be slightly rejigged: It will be a great day when our female athletes get the attention they deserve and all the male footy clubs have to publish their own calendars just to get exposure. Then again, society will have advanced further if it were simply this: It will be a great day when all our sportspeople get the attention they deserve regardless of their gender. It happens already – to an extent. When Samantha Stosur won the US Open tennis championship in 2011, or Sally Pearson won an athletics gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, or golfer Karrie Webb won any of her seven major championships between 1999 and 2006, there were no asterisks against their names reminding us that they’d only been competing against other women. Australians love winners, and when there are victors to celebrate we don’t worry too much about gender or even the event. (Aerial skiing? Why not? It briefly became everyone’s favourite sport when Alisa Camplin struck gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics.)

But apart from such occasional bouts of euphoria, women competitors take a back seat to their male counterparts. As much as Webb’s successes have been recognised, for example, they have never sparked the rock-star treatment rolled out for Adam Scott last year when he won his first major tournament, the US Masters. Meanwhile, of course, male footballers – especially in the AFL and NRL – have TV cameras trailing them when they front up to a clinic for scans on dodgy knees. An imbalance in media interest is only part of it: as Fiona Crawford makes clear in her cover story on Ellyse Perry, an Australian representative in two sports, a gulf separates the financial rewards available to elite male and female cricketers and footballers. (I’d say ‘soccer’ here, but it’s a World Cup year and most of the world calls it ‘football’.)

Perry, just 23, is well aware of the extent to which men dominate the sporting world. Rather than rail against it, she just gets on with her juggling act – two sports and a university course. She knows, too, that her relatively high profile means she has more support than most of her peers. Perhaps, too, she understands that there is irony in any debate about the place of women’s sport in this country, because Australia has a rich history of female sports stars. Betty Cuthbert, Marjorie Jackson, Dawn Fraser, Susie O’Neill, Pam Burridge, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong come readily to mind. There are many, many more. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 I was lucky enough to meet Our Dawn (no ‘Ms Fraser’ for her). She was a sort of Legend in Residence for the Australian team; she also once rescued a colleague and me when we were stuck in the boondocks after a hockey final. As a Games VIP she had a car and a driver, and insisted we jump in with her. We all ended up having dinner. Typically, she insisted that the driver should join us rather than wait outside. She was funny, knowledgeable, had a great respect for all competitors and was absolutely unpretentious – one of those rare, remarkably successful people for whom pigeonholes for gender or event seem both unnecessary and irrelevant. She was simply just one of the boys. In Australia, there’s no higher praise. Though I suspect that will change. Perhaps when the air force has that cake stall.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#454 of The Big Issue magazine.