Mihir Bose on the problems with the world of sport today
Mihir Bose is a writer and broadcaster on sport, India, Bollywood, race and travel.
Vladimir Lenin’s great dictum “who, whom” was never better illustrated than in the last month in two different sports, tennis and racing. The founder of the Soviet Union’s phrase, “the whole question is who will overtake whom”, has always been understood to mean who will have power. Back in 1921 Lenin was talking about the class struggle, with sport now it is the struggle for women to have the right to be treated as the equal of men.
Raymond Moore, the now disgraced former chief executive of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, clearly feels that women in tennis should not. As he put it, “In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coat-tails of the men. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
It is interesting he made the remarks just before Serena Williams, arguably the greatest women tennis player ever, was about to play in the final of his tournament. This suggests Moore thought this was one way to make sure his tournament should continue to receive publicity. In the world of tennis it is a fairly recent tournament. It started as a fundraising event in Tucson, Arizona in the 70s, and at one stage was going to be moved to a proposed tennis stadium to be built near Disney World in Florida. You only have to glance at its website to see how eager it is for self-promotion. The section on the history of the tournament, concludes, “The future of the event looks incredibly promising, and new pages will continue to be added each year to the story of the tournament.” The writer could not have imagined that its former chief executive would be blazoned across the world media, his remarks even making the prestigious Radio 4 Today programme.
Moore has since been forced to resign but his comments clearly raise the question of who exercises power in tennis. Indeed that is also the basis for the reaction of men’s No 1 Novak Djokovic who feels that it is wrong that he gets the same as Serena Williams even though more people want to see him play rather than Williams.
Yet contrast this with what was happening at Cheltenham, the Olympics of jump racing, at the same time. There the story was dominated by Victoria Pendleton and her ambition to ride in the Foxhunter Chase open to amateur jockeys. Pendleton, a dual Olympic gold winning cyclist, had until a year ago never been on a horse, apart from a couple of ponies as a child and the whole thing was seen as a publicity stunt. The bookmakers Betfair bought the horse, Pacha Du Polder, assembled a panel of experts including champion trainer Paul Nicholls, and offered Pendleton a reputed £200,000. Betfair’s PR machine then went into overdrive promoting the event under the catch phrase Switching Saddles and was so successful that more was written about the novice jockey than the whole of the Cheltenham meeting. For Betfair, who do not even sponsor Cheltenham, it could not have been a greater coup.
However while much was made of this and whether Pendleton because of her inexperience would be a hazard to other riders, nothing was made of her being a female. This was never an issue. Even the point about her being a danger was made by a very successful female trainer.
Interestingly, Pendleton during her heyday as a cyclist felt she was a second class citizen because of her sex, always struggling as a woman in a man’s sport. As she told me when I interviewed her just before London 2012, “People don’t take me quite as seriously as they would Sir Chris Hoy. I get frustrated that my voice isn’t as well heard as others. To get my point across, I have to push it a little bit harder. I was talent-spotted at 16 and people still see me as that teenage girl.”
Ironically, Pendleton may never have been in this man’s world had her twin brother cared for cycling. Their father Max, a British national grass-track cycling champion, finding his son not keen on cycling pushed Victoria into the sport, even stopping her from riding horses as a child.
And while she went to Cheltenham feeling that “Maybe I am making a statement for women”, it should be emphasised that the race was won by another woman, Nina Carberry for the second successive year.
And this is where we come to the heart of the question of “who, whom” in sport. In racing women can compete with men in the same race, in tennis and many other sports they cannot. This means that the age-old prejudice against powerful females who may take over from men has not disappeared.
However it is worth saying that sport can claim to have made more progress in this field than many other walks of life. Sport has more high profile women than business or even politics. The US has still to get its first female President and at this stage it is impossible to say if Hilary Clinton will break through that glass ceiling. And even if she does it could be attributed to the Clinton family power.
In sport family power counts for nothing but what the present argument shows is that, to adapt the great Martin Luther King saying, we are a long way from men and women in sports being judged not by their sex but by their ability on the field of play.