I’m no sports writer and I’m no lady. I want to sit too close to you on a metaphorical bus, I want to threateningly tap the bar stool next to me while blocking your way with my foot and I want to talk to you about female athleticism, roller derby and the Olympics.
London 2012 shone a light on female athletes in an unprecedented way. This year was the first that every single team included female members, the first to include women’s boxing, and a new shift in focus to the women’s ability and endurance. This makes quite a change from previous media fascination with appearance, babies, home decoration and other such female smut.
The blips are probably inevitable, with the Telegraph clutching its pearls over the primal power of our female judokas, but the lauding of Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams and of course Katie Taylor (chosen to carry Ireland’s flag) has been previously unmatched.
This new interest suggests that the time is ripe for the inclusion of more women’s sports in the Olympic programme, and I reckon that roller derby (my own sport) would be the perfect addition. My keenness doesn’t come out of the clear blue sky; derby was recently added to an eight-sport shortlist for consideration by the IOC for inclusion in the 2020 Games along with netball (or, as I call it ‘everything that’s wrong with sports provision for young women in this country’.)
Derby is a sport which requires speed, strength, agility, quick-thinking, teamwork and bravery, and I want you to forget everything you’ve ever read about it. It’s relatively uncomplicated (to watch, in any case), it has the ability to attract huge crowds even at its current hyper-amateur level and it showcases excellent examples of female might and sporting prowess for girls and young women who at present are at best an afterthought in the team and contact sport conversation.
It is, however, dogged by misconception and misrepresentation in its media portrayal, and this would have to be fixed or at least improved in order to ramp up its chances of Olympic inclusion. The media issues range from basic practical misunderstandings and a lack of research (see, for instance ‘basically a series of high speed muggings on skates’ from the Independent’s report on the first UK based WFTDA tournament) to a tedious preoccupation with appearances. The bafflingly innacurate description of the rules and aims is somewhat at odds with reportage of men’s contact sports – I find it difficult to imagine a sports journalist describing men’s rugby as ‘basically a series of homoerotic incidents with liedowns’ – but the main problem to my mind is the evident assumption that women are interested solely in the look of things.
The endemic frippery-fixation in its reportage includes obsessive descriptions of the piercings, tattoos and dyed hair of the players and spectators (an irrelevance), the lists of nicknames that we play under (hardly a new thing in sport ) and the carnival-like atmosphere of matches (which comes from a tradition of pageantry in American sport, and is hardly evidence that women can’t cope unless there are bright lights and soft fabrics.) We also see the tendentious reassurance that the sport is for women of ‘all shapes and sizes’. If we again turn to accounts of sports which are dominated by men, different body types suiting different positions is very common. Just like you wouldn’t stick Lionel Messi at the back, you wouldn’t put a small thing like me on as an offensive blocker. It is nothing to do with the discourse and assumptions surrounding weight and female shape, merely a fact of specialised positions within team sport. It is dishonest to suggest that it is a cuddly Dove advert of a sport; it is true that size is largely irrelevant, but fitness most certainly is not.
Its ability to attract large crowds is already proven (the tickets for the visiting Team USA’s match against Team England sold out in under a minute) and it’s truly heartwarming to hear little girls telling anyone who’ll listen that ‘they’re gonna learn to skate like their mummy.’ The importance of interesting girls in sport from an early age becomes more important every year, with an increasing crisis in the relationship that young women have with their bodies. The addition of a women’s sport like roller derby to the Olympics could help to encourage them to think of their bodies as powerful and impressive, not as troublesome shells which they believe will always look wrong.
I’m not suggesting that the addition would be plain sailing. At present there is no internalised national structure, with leagues competing on an ad hoc basis (although the success of Team England at 2011’s World Cup suggests this may not be too much of an issue). The sport is at present defiantly skater-run and skater-owned and there could well be resistance to things like corporate sponsorship. The fact that at the World Cup more or less every single player still had her number written on her arm in marker pen suggests that the DIY origins of the sport might not be so easily shed. Since it’s an American import, Team USA would be more or less unbeatable, and the real competition would be for Silver. However, this will change, with skaters around the world becoming even faster, stronger and more experienced, and with the big dream team US players retiring. In any case, this was not used as an argument against the inclusion of basketball as an Olympic sport, which had exactly the same problem until a few years ago. There are eight years until the 2020 Games, and these arguments against are hardly insoluble.
Involvement in roller derby has changed my life; my only prior acquaintance with team sports had been hiding behind a hedge on the hockey field, and I treated the athletic and the hearty with profound suspicion until I reached my mid-20s. Healthy competitiveness, where you are encouraged to knock the heck out of each other and then shake hands (or high five as the case may be), is tragically missing from the early years education of girls; we aren’t taught the value of team camaraderie, and I don’t want to blame the patriarchy, but I do. So let’s use the examples of Jessica Ennis (who would make an excellent jammer) and other women like her to encourage the international sporting world to give greater recognition to women in sport and to sports for women, starting with roller derby. Finally let’s , for the love of everything that is good and pure, do this without once using the word empowering.