the true scale of how women’s sport was left behind in lockdown3 min read
Here, there are some crucial structural differences: one is a multibillion-pound global motor racing championship entering its 72nd year, while the other is an embryonic project propped up by private equity. But their different fates shine a light on how Covid has reinstated sport’s gender gap.
In times of crisis, sport will turn to its reliable revenue-generators: namely, it presumes, the men. It is a crude approach of nourishing the core while neglecting the extremities. This suggests, I put it to Rafferty, that recent progress, from the Lionesses’s record viewing figures to the successes of England’s netballers, is built on fragile foundations.
“I think you’re right,” she says. “My biggest frustration is that there is so much hype around the largest tournaments, and then it all falls off a cliff when it comes to the domestic leagues. I want to see the Lionesses’ fan base supporting their local teams. It takes a commitment from the general public to follow up.”
It is not only women’s sporting livelihoods that have been eroded to a disproportionate degree. In some cases, even their health seems to be an afterthought. In January, as UK Covid numbers spiralled, Kristine Sommer, the United States rugby international then playing for Harlequins, asked why there were no rigorous testing arrangements in place in the Premier 15s.
“The main thing that upset me was the discrepancy in protocols between men’s and women’s sport,” she says. “We were not elite professionals, we were not in protected bubbles, therefore we did not receive any testing other than checks to see if we had symptoms. But a lot of athletes who test positive are asymptomatic. That was the tipping point for me. It felt surreal, that the reason I wasn’t being tested was financial.”
The testing fiasco, ultimately, had a role in forcing Sommer to return to Colorado. “I had a lot of battles,” she says. “No one in the league was making a decision. In the end, it was too much of a risk to be in that environment, with the potential to catch Covid, when I could wait a couple of months to be in a more restricted bubble with the US team by March.”
Hers is a glaring example of how sportswomen’s basic needs have been forgotten as the UK’s Covid calamity persists. But it is far from the only picture of systemic inequality. Last May, Clare Connor, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s director of women’s cricket, acknowledged that some England women’s fixtures would have to be sacrificed.
Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, as the men’s team edged back into action, Stuart Broad was joking on Instagram about being given a women’s toilet at Trent Bridge in which to change. As the women languished on the periphery, the men were moving into their physical quarters.
It is a graphic reminder of how being a female athlete in this vast crisis is often to be disregarded, labelled non-elite and financially cut off. If a year of lockdown is not to wipe out a decade of advances, these warped realities need correcting, and fast.