One hundred years ago, Emily Davison ran on to Epsom racecourse during the Derby horse race, and was killed by the King’s horse.
In 1913 she was generally considered mad. It wasn’t until later that she became a feminist icon who paid the ultimate price in her quest for equal rights for women. There is a BBC documentary on the incident that is well worth watching.
Her sacrifice did not go unheeded and society in much of the world has come a long way in terms of gender equality, but the battle is not won and unfortunately within the sporting arena, the scenario is disquieting. In many sports, think of cricket, football and rugby to name but a few, the women’s version is virtually inconspicuous on the public radar.
Last week the US Open Squash Championships made a bold statement by dividing the prize money equally between the men and the women, something that has rarely been done in squash over the years. This attracted widespread commentary from players and fans alike and regrettably a number of people, some fellow male players even, seem to be unflinching on the matter, citing unfathomable, archaic and plain sexist views as explanations.
Some have made the point that every sporting event has a value in terms of what it can attract commercially, irrespective of whether men or women compete. This is correct and will always be true: as an example, tennis has a greater commercial value than squash. In the same way, presently men’s squash brings in more revenue than women’s. But the more money that is invested into something, the more interest it will generate. If promoters followed the example of the US Open, there is no reason why the women’s game couldn’t grow and thrive in the same way the men’s has.
That the women are no less exceptional at what they do is clear and last week’s event proved this beyond doubt.
The women’s game is as competitive as ever and they are just as fiercely dedicated to their sport as the men, if not more. Why then should they reap less?
Some argue that women’s squash is less entertaining. I have watched thousands of hours of squash in my time and sit there rapt when Nicol David plays a world championship final. She is an athlete at the height of her powers and I’m not put off because she hasn’t got the innate physical power of the top men. And for the people who say the women are less skilful: what many professional men, myself included, would give to execute a volley nick the way Raneem El Weleilly does.
Most, but not all sports are behind when it comes to this issue. Tennis authorities have struck the balance. It is virtually the only sport in which women stand parallel with men. Equally gratifying is that the Olympics have given female athletes such high profile.
In this country we are lucky to have role models like Jessica Ennis-Hill, Kelly Holmes and Rebecca Adlington, and they prove the public demand is just as high for women’s sport as it is for men.
When Kelly Holmes won her two gold medals in 2004, nobody belittled the achievement by pointing out that she didn’t run as fast as her male equivalents; to have done so would have been ridiculous.
US squash are to be congratulated for what they have done. The men’s association, PSA, have also been supportive, making efforts to televise the women’s game sometimes at their own cost, something many won’t realise.
It is important that the associations continue to endorse equality in sport and that together with the media, they keep building momentum towards a more balanced sporting landscape. No doubt Emily Davison would approve.