Victoria Pendleton clinching gold following a nail-biting keirin contest. Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins raising their arms to the sky in triumph after a final surge over the finish line in the double sculls. Jessica Ennis beaming and holding the British flag proudly aloft to celebrate her heptathlon glory.
Some 15 months on from the London Olympics, these moments still burn brightly in the memory of the millions that cheered on Team GB. After Britain’s women performed beyond expectation in their best ever Games, underlined by a haul of 11 gold medals, it was hoped 2012 would be a turning point for women’s sport.
But even after what was dubbed by some as ‘the girls’ Games’, questions have surfaced over whether the much-hyped Olympic legacy is bypassing women. So much so, in fact, that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee met in Parliament this week to begin an inquiry into why female participation in sport remains low.
A gulf in the promotion and funding dedicated to women’s sport compared to men’s has been highlighted as one of the key problems. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation reported last year that just five per cent of sports media coverage in the UK is devoted to women, while women’s sport receives only 0.5 per cent of commercial investment.
Ennis shone as Britain's women came to the fore at London 2012
According to tennis legend Martina Navratilova, one of the most successful female athletes of all time, a lack of sponsorship is one of the major factors contributing to the gender inequality that remains not just in the UK, but throughout sport worldwide.
She told BT Sport: “Men still have more opportunities, more corporations are run by men, therefore they’re more ready to sponsor male athletes.”
A winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles and a barrier-breaker for women’s sport during her heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Navratilova has experienced first-hand the obstacles that must be hurdled on the road to becoming a top female athlete.
Major female figures in sport – such as tennis superpowers Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and Ennis (now Ennis-Hill) in the British market – may have the big-money sponsorship deals but Navratilova insists that most successful, high-profile sportswomen face a different battle.
She claims the issue further reinforcing the disparity between men and women in sport is an unaccepting attitude towards strong, powerful sportswomen that refuses to budge.
It’s much easier for Roger Federer to be loved by everybody than for Serena Williams to be loved by everybody, just by the fact that he’s a guy."
“There’s a double standard, there’s no doubt about it in my mind,” added 57-year-old Navratilova. “It’s still hard for some to accept strong women.
“With men, we’re so much quicker to accept their greatness. With women we doubt their greatness. I’ve seen it time and time again.
“It’s much easier for Roger Federer to be loved by everybody than for Serena Williams to be loved by everybody, just by the fact that he’s a guy.”
As Navratilova puts it, the public have been “slow to warm up” to world number one Williams, widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. A 17-time Grand Slam winner and threatening to topple Navratilova’s own tally after a storming season this year, her talent and quality are not up for dispute.
But Navratilova feels – for what could be a number of reasons, including her gender – Williams does not necessarily command the respect she deserves.
Williams has not always had the support of the masses despite a glittering career
She said: “I don’t know how much of it has to do with Serena herself, how much of it has to do with the fact she’s African American and how much of it is that she’s a woman.
“In some ways people are willing to give people the mantle of the greatest of all time and at the same time they’re still not getting the respect they should be getting.”
Navratilova, who was born in Czechoslovakia but gained US citizenship in 1981, recalled her own experience of returning to the women’s tour in 2000 and the reaction she received in comparison to how the public and press treated basketball star Michael Jordan, who made a comeback the following year.
She added: “When Michael Jordan came back and played again it was ‘he’s unbelievable, he’s the best ever’ and when I came back and played some matches and won it was ‘there’s no depth in women’s tennis’.
“With Serena it’s ‘she doesn’t have much competition’. Well, Rodger (Federer) didn’t have much competition for a while either but they weren’t bemoaning that fact, they were never saying there’s no depth in men’s tennis. They’re quick to say it about women.”
That said, Navratilova acknowledges that the balance has improved since her own trail-blazing days on the tennis circuit.
There’s plenty of role models for young girls to not feel like they have to blaze a new path."
Another possible explanation being touted for the lack of female participation in sport in the UK is a culture that promotes being thin over being fit and healthy.
But, after seeing the number of women sports stars rise since her own early days on the court, Navratilova feels there’s now no shortage of strong female role models for young girls to turn to.
“There’s a lot more than we ever had, isn’t there? So it’s going to keep growing,” she said.
“There’s plenty of them for young girls to not feel like they have to blaze a new path. There’s certainly people that have been there before so it’s much easier for girls to look up and say 'I want to be like that one' or 'this woman did that, I can certainly do this'.
“So it’s much, much easier these days for girls. At least in this part of the world.”
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