The mysterious case of the vanishing women…

We are mid-way through the Rio Olympics. So far, I have watched approximately 10 hours of gymnastics; two Murray matches that have aged me considerably; a few cycling victories; and two rowing golds for Team GB which I observed while getting sweaty on a cross-trainer and feeling very despondent about the intensity of my workout!

Artistic Gymnastics - Women's Team FinalOne woman who has *not* been invisible in Rio! 

A couple of times now, while watching the BBC’s coverage (which is excellent, incidentally – God bless the myriad live streams available!), a short film has been shown on the topic of the ‘greatest Olympians’. It’s narrated by Michael Johnson – himself a contender for that accolade – and features archive footage of great athletes going back decades. Many of the usual suspects feature: Muhammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, Emil Zatopek, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy… I could go on.

On my first viewing, I noticed that the athletes were predominantly male. The second time it appeared on the screen, I made a point of counting the number of women who appeared. Out of a total of 21 athletes [working on the basis of presuming an individual was the focus of group shots – e.g. just Steve Redgrave rather than the whole boat crew] just four were female. They consisted of: Fanny Blankers-Koen; Kathy Freeman, Mary Peters & Nadia Comaneci. Only Comaneci and Freeman get name-checked, in contrast with the majority of the male athletes.

The first woman appears 1 minute into the 2min 16s film. Comaneci appears twice – leading me to initially believe five women appeared. Several of the men appear more than once. Some of them even speak. But not the women.

BBC Greatest Olympian?

Looking up the video on the BBC website, it becomes clear that these are apparently Michael Johnson’s choices. In which case, perhaps fair enough – it’s a matter of personal opinion. But that isn’t clear in the video itself. A video that’s being shown at regular intervals on broadcasts being watched by millions of people, including many who may need a bit of inspiration from seeing something of the history of inspirational women that have been part of the Olympics! To be honest, the BBC should know better. Especially after the Sports Personality of the Year debacle from a few years ago.

Even the article that goes with the video makes it clear in its first paragraph that if you measure ‘greatness’ based upon number of medals won, then the top contender is a female gymnast – Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine of them golds). Did she feature in the video? No. It then goes on to suggest another measure: medals earned over several Olympiads. Again, the ‘greatest’ in this category is a woman – Birgit Fischer who won 8 golds over 6 Olympics in canoeing – admittedly someone I’d never heard of, but did she feature? No, but Steve Redgrave (5 golds in 5 games) did.

In fairness, it does highlight the achievements of Fanny Blankers-Koen (one of only two mothers ever to have won Olympic gold) and Nadia Comaneci (scorer of the first perfect gymnastics score). But there really is so much more that could be said!

So I did my own research. (Hello Google.) I discovered some brilliant un-sung stories, including…

Dawn Fraser (Australia, swimming). Won 8 medals in total (4 gold, 4 silver), in the 1956, 60 & 64 games – including winning the 100m freestyle three times. Only one other woman has done that in swimming. Brilliantly, after playing a series of pranks at the Tokyo games in 64, she was banned from the Olympics by Australia’s national committee, meaning that she didn’t get the chance to defend her title a third time.

Valentina Vezzali (Italy, fencing). Won 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) over four Olympics (96, 2000, 04 & 08). With a maximum of two medals available in foil fencing in any one games, that’s pretty impressive.

Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc (Romania, rowing). Winning her first gold aged 19 in 1984, she then won a medal at every games up to and including 2004. Twenty years!

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA, athletics). Won 6 medals over 4 games – including back-to-back heptathlons in 88 and 92, followed up with long jump bronze in 1996!

Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary, swimming). 7 medals over 3 Olympics (1988, 92 & 96) and is the only other woman to have won gold in the same swimming event in three consecutive games.

Apart from Joyner-Kersee, I’d not heard of any of these women – yet (on medal tally & longevity) they rank amongst the top 10 female summer Olympians. In comparison, I could probably have told you something about every single one of their male counterparts – those are stories I’ve heard re-told again and again every time the Olympics comes around. Treatment of women in sport is bad enough (I presume everyone’s seen the terrible reporting even in this year’s games?!?), without forgetting the stories of those who went before.

Come on BBC. We know you can do a lot better than this.

Great Olympic women...What Google brings up if you image search ‘great Olympic women’…

Tour d’Angleterre

Given that I rarely attend live sporting events, it’s somewhat unlikely that I would be present at two internationally renowned fixtures within a week of each other – but, such are the joys of living in London in July 2014!

You know about my Wimbledon obsession, but despite several visits to London over the years, I’ve never bothered to go and watch le Tour en route through the capital. (In fact, on one of these occasions, I instead babysat a restless 6 year old who would not have enjoyed the spectating process at all.) Given that I had little better to do last Monday afternoon than stand by the side of a road and watch bikes – plus, a new Matryoshka Haus intern was very keen on spectating – I figured this year was a good year to start.

Unless you’ve been living under a stone (or outside the UK) you’ll be aware that the country went Tour mad last week. Especially in Yorkshire. Choosing to hold the Grand Depart in that particular county was a stroke of genius, Yorkshire – and anyone who could get there over the weekend – rejoiced in all things cycling for 48 hours. This included my father, who not only has a passion for cycling (as I noted during a recent visit of his to London, where our urban perambulations were frequented with pauses to examine bikes locked up along the road) but also has parents who own a mobile home on Ilkley Moor. For the first time in the history of this holiday property, it had a real use as it provided Dad with easy access to key points along the route.

TDF Yorkshire

Dad likes to keep the family updated while he’s away and his emails to us are always amusing – the weekend of le Tour was no disappointment and whetted my appetite for what would await me on Monday. Here are some extracts:

A Sad Finish:
“We were all cheering Mark Cavendish till he crashed. Looks like he’ll be out of the tour. 
Off to look for fish and chips soon.
The day has been so sunny I had to get a new sun hat.” [This was the entire email. I love the way Dad’s mind works.]

Le Tour Day Two:
“The tour seems to be the biggest thing to hit Yorkshire since the wars of the Roses.
This morning walked through a series of lanes and footpaths to Silsden. Little knots of pilgrims were converging along the lanes with their yellow T shirts and folding chairs. It was a bit reminiscent of the closing scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I stood on the upper high st where people had simply taken their dining chairs out of the house onto the pavement. Still thousands on the streets. Silsden has obviously never seen the like and everywhere – homes and businesses – was decorated. Personally, I thought the yellow wreath hanging on the door of the funeral director was a bit tasteless!

I listened to Radio Leeds to find out how near the race was and heard a wonderful interview with a spectator: ‘I’ve been in t’ Champs Elysee for the end of the Tour, but it were nowt compared wi t’ Keighley bypass today’. Yorkshire pride doesn’t get prouder than that! Afterwards I had soup at the Methodist Church where they were doing a roaring trade in light lunches. Paused to admire their knitted bike and watch a bit of the race on their screen.”

TDF Yorkshire 2

Surely it would be just as exciting in London? London, the most successful Olympic host city in the history of the games? Well, perhaps if I’d gone to one of the Spectator Hubs. But even if I’d done that, I think I’d still have been a little disappointed. Yes, there was a great atmosphere – despite the torrential rain that arrived just as it was clear that the cyclists weren’t going to arrive on schedule – but we were definitely lacking in yellow decorations!

Cameron and I waited for nearly two hours just below Monument. We had a pretty good view and were right on the roadside, and it did give Cameron time to share his knowledge of the tour, cycling and other professional tours – ensuring that I wasn’t quite the cycling imbecile I might have been. 3G signal was minimal, preventing any attempts at keeping track of where the peloton was. Instead, we had to rely upon the positioning of stewards, the sound of helicopters approaching and the noise of clapping further up the route.

A damp view Our excellent, but damp, view. 

In typically brilliant timing, my phone spontaneously ran out of battery (despite being on 35%, grrrr – entirely the fault of my external battery charging cable giving up its ghost that same afternoon). As a result, I only have the above photo and this one. This is not a competitor in le Tour, it’s some joker who pedalled down the route 15 minutes before the professionals. He caused a lot of excitement.

Fake cyclist

Fortunately, Cameron made the most of the 30 seconds it took the riders to pass us:

Le Tour en LondresSee, so close!

In honesty, it was a bit of an anti-climax! Especially when photos of friends’ experiences in Cambridge began appearing on Facebook – they’d managed to photograph more than one cyclist. One friend, who had been singing in front of a college to celebrate the tour (how very Cambridge!) had a marvellous view of the pack as they set off – largely thanks to an enforced speed limit at the start. Those of us towards the end of the course caught them in their final sprint. Quite the contrast.

Still, please Tour de France, don’t hesitate to return to our shores very soon!

An anthemic question

Apparently, the English public had the opportunity last year to choose what should be played as a ‘victory anthem’ in the event that any of Team England won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. This appears to have passed me by, meaning that I had no idea that as of this year, the tune in question would be Jerusalem.

England has no specific national anthem. In most cases where the home nations play separately (football, rugby…) it’s the British anthem of God Save the Queen. I strongly detest our national anthem – partly because I’m not a monarchist and partly because the poetic, musical side of me finds it dull and boring. Thanks to my career in Guiding I can sing all three verses, but none of them are particularly inspiring. The only decent version I’ve heard recently was at this year’s Last Night of the Proms when the Britten arrangement played was quite beautiful  – a rare occurrence.

True, it’s unusual for a national anthem to be a work of staggering musical and lyrical genius, but many do raise genuine emotions, even for those who don’t belong to the country. Who doesn’t still feel slightly moved by South Africa’s Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, with all its post-apartheid connotations? What about the anthems that tell a story? The Star Spangled Banner may be overplayed at the Olympics, but it captures a moment in that nation’s history. My all-time favourite though, is Advance Australia Fair, closely followed by O Canada (though that’s possibly more owing to the version on the South Park soundtrack, than any north American romanticism).

The English had a short-list to choose from, consisting of Jerusalem, God Save the Queen and Land of Hope & Glory. Personally, I’d have gone for the latter – it’s been a bit of a favourite ever since I discovered Elgar aged 9. [My deeply non-patriotic father was rather embarrassed by my regular insistence that Pomp & Circumstance be played as our classical accompaniment to Sunday lunch, so introduced me to Elgar’s Cello Concerto as a way of distracting me…it worked.] To be honest, the words are far more poetic than our regular anthem and (while slightly naff) at least say something positive about the country, plus the tune’s a good ‘un with fabulous orchestration.

I’m pretty sure I’d never sung Jerusalem until my first Leavers’ Service at the grammar school I joined age 14. It’s not in the Methodist hymn book (nor is it’s fellow patriotic favourite, I Vow to Thee My Country – another cathedral service essential). William Blake’s poem and the accompanying tune will probably forever be associated with the Women’s Institute as far as I’m concerned (though with the additional element of the Calendar Girls getting naked), plus, it just doesn’t make any sense…

So what should it be? Ought there to be a competition to write a new one from scratch? Probably not, the composers who actually would have done a good job of it are dead now, we’d probably end up with an Andrew Lloyd Webber creation. Perhaps we could even ditch the British anthem when the current monarch dies?

In the mean time, it seems that the Guardian readership at least agree with me that Land of Hope & Glory should have beaten Jerusalem. You have a day left to vote, but the former’s currently in the lead with 38.4%.

Sliders, Skaters & Boarders

Winter Olympic lessons learned so far this olympiad:

  • Tonga’s attempt to emulate Cool Runnings using luge rather than the four-man bob didn’t work. (I know nothing more than that they have no athletes in the games.)
  • Ethiopa and Ghana both have teams in the games – who’d have thought it? 
  • Those competing in sports that involve going down steep courses on a tray/in a sophisticated sledge are collectively known as ‘sliders’. Is it just me, but doesn’t this make them sound like some kind of alien species about to invade earth? 
  • Snowboard Cross is one of the most mental (and captivating) sports invented. Four snowboarders hurl themselves down the course simultaneously and generally (at least from my half hour’s viewing last night) at least one takes a tumble in the process. 
  • Japan’s speed skating suits are gold and shiny, making their athletes look like characters out of a comic book. 
  • Olympic standard ice skating really makes Dancing on Ice look rubbish. On the plus side, a few years of only watching pathetic celebrity routines has made me appreciate the real thing a whole lot more.
  • Vancouver is 8 hours behind London time.
This last lesson may seem obvious (and I’m surprised I’d not fully realised the time difference even though a good friend of mine moved there two years ago) but it’s only been an issue since the Olympics began. 
It’s not often that we get good figure skating coverage on TV and I am rather fond of it. (My family roots are in Nottingham – Torvill & Dean country…) Last night’s Pairs Free Programme was shown at 4am. Fortunately (!) I was woken up be a text at 4.23am and couldn’t get back to sleep, thus catching the final four competitors. Joy. 
Of course, we Brits don’t have a whole heap of medal prospects (I believe the official target is one, we don’t like to attempt the impossible!). I was greatly amused to hear the British figure skating pair referred to as ‘finishing in 16th place, which is a really impressive result’. Impressive? Well, it was their personal best, so I guess impressive in a way… 
With little national interest, it at least means we can take a healthy interest in any sport going – much more fun. So, I’ll be scheduling further insomnia for the 18th, 23rd & 25th ready to support the underdogs on the ice rink. 

When cheerleaders go bad

Just when you thought this blog was becoming a little too serious and intense, along comes a post about cheerleading…

Apparantly, cheerleading is the world’s most dangerous sport. This isn’t because of the injuries that can occur when a pom-pom flies into the eyes, oh no…it’s become particularly dangerous because of the increasing number of gymnastic stunts involved. As of 2008, High School Cheerleading accounted for 65.1% of ‘catastrophic’ sports injuries amongst girls.

And the danger doesn’t stop when cheerleaders leave the gym or football field. Cheerleading is seemingly not as sweet, innocent and wholesome an activity as depicted in the classic film ‘Bring It On’.

An article in today’s Guardian chronicles Cheerleading’s annus horribilis, including the kidnap & beating of a cheerleader by 6 other members of her high school squad in Florida. Not to mention the fact that the University of Idaho were forced to change their uniforms to something less slutty. Or that eight high school cheerleaders in Georgia were suspended for performing cheers whilst drunk. (Wouldn’t that just be hilarious to watch?)

In other cheerleading news, did you know that Indian cricket teams have them? And even they have their scandals. Last year, two British cricket cheerleaders were allegedly excluded from a squad because their skin was ‘too dark’.

Then there’s the gay cheerleader that was axed from Heroes. (I’m saying that like I watch the show, I actually don’t, but probably should.)

I think we need more cheerleaders in the UK. Not just pretty girls in slutty outfits either, have some decent gymnastic men in it too. (Although, my concept of male cheerleaders is slightly tainted by the fact that the current – but soon to be ex – US President was a member of a cheer squad!)