Fairer play in ev­ery field

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Neill

Be­fore the 2000 Syd­ney Olympics, the In­ter­na­tional Vol­ley­ball Fed­er­a­tion in­tro­duced a new rule de­cree­ing that fe­male beach vol­ley­ball ath­letes had to wear bikini bot­toms no wider than 6cm at the hip. Male beach vol­ley­ballers were per­mit­ted to con­tinue play­ing in shorts and sin­glets.

You could be for­given for think­ing this edict was a one-time aber­ra­tion, dreamed up by mis­guided of­fi­cials des­per­ate to pro­mote their sport by trad­ing on its sex ap­peal. In fact, the rule en­dured for 13 years be­fore the in­ter­na­tional fed­er­a­tion backed down, fi­nally ac­knowl­edg­ing that com­pelling fe­male beach vol­ley­ballers to wear tiny briefs dis­cour­aged women from con­ser­va­tive cul­tures, or those with­out per­fectly honed bod­ies, from play­ing.

The bikini de­cree is just one of a mul­ti­tude of dou­ble stan­dards that fe­male ath­letes have faced — and still face — as Melbourne-based sports jour­nal­ist An­gela Pip­pos makes clear in Break­ing the Mould: Tak­ing a Ham­mer to Sex­ism in Sport. For the most part, this book is a timely, lively and lu­cid ac­count of the tribu­la­tions — but also the in­creas­ing tri­umphs — of women in sport, as they seek to level a play­ing field long tilted in favour of men.

As Pip­pos wryly ob­serves, un­til re­cently race­horses re­ceived more me­dia cov­er­age in Aus­tralia than the coun­try’s fe­male ath­letes. How­ever, even as the au­thor was re­search­ing her book fun­da­men­tal change was un­der way. She ar­gues that ‘‘2015 was a break­out year on all fronts for our sportswomen … At­ti­tudes that have kept women marginalised in sport are dis­ap­pear­ing, clear­ing the way for … more me­dia cov­er­age, spon­sor­ship and bet­ter pay deals’’.

This was the year in which the Matil­das foot­ball squad reached the quar­ter­fi­nals at the World Cup, and then went on strike for bet­ter pay (off a piti­fully low base), which they won. the year in which Michelle Payne be­came the first fe­male jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, start­ing a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about sex­ism in the rac­ing game with her spec­tac­u­lar “ev­ery­one else can get stuffed’’ spray.

The past cou­ple of years have also seen grow­ing pub­lic sup­port, spon­sor­ship and me­dia cov­er­age for fe­male play­ers in Big Bash cricket, rugby union and AFL.

While Pip­pos doc­u­ments how a turn­ing point has been reached for Aus­tralia’s sportswomen, she also high­lights how sport is still of­ten seen as sa­cred blokes’ busi­ness.

Faced with the prospect of per­ma­nently los­ing the rights to host the Bri­tish Open Cham­pi­onship, Scot­land’s Muir­field Golf Club fi­nally over­turned its 272-year ban on fe­male mem­bers this month. There is no women’s race — but plenty of podium girls — at the planet’s most watched cy­cling event, the Tour de France. Re- mem­ber how Aus­tralia’s male bas­ket­ballers trav­elled to the Lon­don Olympics in busi­ness class, while the fe­male team flew econ­omy? The women were stuck in cattle class de­spite the Opals hav­ing won three sil­ver medals at the three pre­vi­ous Olympics, while the Boomers’ medal tally stood at zero.

Men in sport have tra­di­tion­ally had an un­ri­valled tal­ent for con­jur­ing quotes about sportswomen that are so bizarre or nakedly bi­ased as to be in the realm of self-par­ody, and Pip­pos has col­lected some beau­ties. She quotes former AFL coach Gra­ham Cornes af­ter he watched an ex­hi­bi­tion match be­tween women’s teams in 2015: “It just didn’t look right … per­haps it was the out­fits … most of them looked like girls play­ing foot­ball.’’

Of course, there is a more wor­ry­ing side to sport’s blokey cul­ture. Pip­pos ex­plores its “dark underbelly’’ when she briefly re­vis­its the 2004 sex and rape scan­dals that tainted sev­eral Aus­tralian foot­ball codes. She ar­gues the codes learned from these grim episodes about the need to show women greater re­spect. Still, the mes­sage didn’t get through to ev­ery­one, as Colling­wood pres­i­dent Ed­die McGuire’s on-air jibe that he would pay to drown jour­nal­ist Caro­line Wil­son demon­strated. (McGuire later apol­o­gised for his re­marks.)

Pip­pos has ex­pe­ri­enced the seamier side of sports cul­ture first-hand. She has waited for doorstop in­ter­views at foot­ball train­ing ses­sions where porn is be­ing watched, even though the train­ing grounds are work­places. She also cites a me­dia re­port (writ­ten by a male jour­nal­ist) con­demn­ing an­other male re­porter who tog­gled be­tween his match re­ports and hard­core porn in the press box at a re­cent Melbourne cricket Test — over 1½ days.

Break­ing the Mould strikes an ef­fec­tive bal­ance be­tween bright op­ti­mism over the dra­matic re­cent ad­vances in women’s sport, and telling it like it is.

My main reser­va­tion lies with Pip­pos’s some­times heavy-handed and clumsy com­men­tary. In one typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of au­tho­rial overkill, she rightly roasts the TV in­ter­viewer who in­sisted Eu­ge­nie Bouchard “give us a twirl and tell us about your out­fit’’ af­ter the glam­orous Cana­dian ten­nis player won a big game at the 2015 Aus­tralian Open.

Al­though the in­ter­viewer’s pa­tro­n­is­ing at­ti­tude was ob­vi­ous — and widely mocked at the time — Pip­pos goes on to imag­ine Roger Fed­erer be­ing asked to touch his toes and about “the cut of your shorts. They look like they keep your balls nice and snug.’’ The au­thor, alas, is not ex­actly a nat­u­ral-born satirist.

Nev­er­the­less, Pip­pos makes a vi­tal con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate on women in sport. It’s a de­bate that, hap­pily, has been re-en­er­gised not just be­cause of the prob­lems fe­male ath­letes en­counter, but be­cause real and mea­sur­able progress is be­ing made. is a jour­nal­ist on The Aus­tralian.

Opals Laura Hodges and Step Tal­bot

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