Women in sport

From Zola Budd to Sally Gunnell, our four-time Ironman World Champ has been inspired by many great female athletes…

The most beautiful women in the world have numbers on their bellies

Recently I was fortunate enough to appear on BBC Breakfast television to publicise a report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), which highlighted the declining levels of girls’ participation in sport. The supporting research suggests that a meagre 12% of 14-year-old girls undertake the recommended levels of physical activity – half the number of boys at the same age. The report identified several causative factors, including the narrow range of sports offered at school (with the focus being on competitive, team-based sports like hockey and netball), issues around body image, a lack of positive female sporting role models, and perceptions of sport as being masculine, dirty and untrendy: supposedly the antithesis of ‘femininity’. I wanted to pick up on the final two of these issues.

I grew up watching athletes like Zola Budd, Sharon Davies and Sally Gunnell. They were toned, successful and broke a sweat. During a trip to Philadelphia last December I was reminded of Billie Jean King, who challenged convention and changed the face of women’s tennis. Likewise we can look to Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer who took the male chauvinists by the balls by becoming the first women to run the all-male Boston Marathon.

I believe that as a professional sportsperson I have a responsibility to demonstrate integrity, fairness, hard work, dedication and passion, not only on the pitch but also off it. I hope that I’m able to inspire and encourage others, giving women and girls – as well as men and boys – reasons to be cheerful, to test themselves and to achieve more than they ever thought they could. I also hope that I can show, by my many flaws and by my response to problems and mistakes, what not to do!

I want to offer a challenge to the stereotypical ‘handbags, nail varnish, perfect skin’ view of femininity often portrayed by the media. We want female athletes to be successful, but heaven forbid if they get sweaty, suffer from chaffing, have bulbous biceps or, worst still, perform al fresco ablutions. To me, femininity is about being strong, powerful, confident and happy. It’s about knowing what you want and chasing it. I’m pleased to say that the triathlon media, in the main, celebrates female – and male – athletes, in all their sweaty glory. Of all the ads I’ve featured in, my favourite has to be one by TYR. It pictured me arms aloft, union jack in hand, the number 101 on my waist, smiling as I crossed the finish line in Kona 2009. The caption read, “The most beautiful women in the world have numbers on their bellies.”

I wish more mainstream media articles or advertisements portrayed female athletes this way, because if they did it would be easier for us female pro sportspeople to inspire those around us. But of course, we are by no means the only or the most important role models. When asked about the most important, influential role models in my life, I might mention Budd, Davies and Gunnell, but the list is actually headed by my parents, Jon Blais, Aung Sang Su Khi, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Reinersten, Nelson Mandela, my closest friends… Okay, they may not be perfect, but they all display traits, values and attitudes that I admire and wish to emulate.

And this list also includes you, the triathlon age-grouper. YOU are the most important role models. For me and those around you. You are mothers, fathers, siblings, teammates, girlfriends, wives, boyfriends, husbands, friends, work colleagues, teachers, coaches, parents… You dedicate time and energy to being the best you can be. You overcome obstacles. You juggle balls. You mentor others. You cry, laugh, smile, chafe, sweat and suffer. You are empowered by your participation in the sport and in reaching your goals.

You might not capture the headlines or have your face on television, but you’re the model of strength, courage and determination, and you’re the ones who can inspire the next generation and challenge the concept of sport as solely the province of muscle-bound men. Of course, barriers to participation – economic, social and cultural – will still exist and breaking down those barriers won’t be easy. But if daughters see their mothers being active, boys cheer for their sisters on the race course and women see female friends take up a new challenge, this will undoubtedly help to ensure that the next time WSFF publishes a report, it will be about the ‘growth’ of girls’ (and boys’) participation in physical activity and all the amazing benefits that this will bring. So go and put that number on your belly, wear it with pride and remember that you’re making an incredible difference one tri at a time.