On Monday this week I was a guest on BBC Breakfast TV, hosted by Bill Turnbull and Susannah Reid at Lund Point, a block of residential flats overlooking the Olympic Park. What a view! The studio itself was actually on the roof, and I and Liz Nicholl of UK Sport, who was also speaking in the same slot, walked up a set of rather rickety steps into the open air before we were ushered into the compact but highly efficient studio with, as I said, that fabulous view over a now very empty Park. It was the morning after the night of the Closing Ceremony, and we were there to talk about the legacy of the Olympic Games, particularly for girls and women. I made the point that the Games had been incredibly inspirational for girls and women, and we now had to keep up the momentum and keep enabling us all to watch lots of women’s sport. As is always the case with the media, there is never enough time to say all that could or should be said, but it was a very good experience, and an opportunity to make the case for more sustained support of sport for girls and women.
When I left Lund Point, because the weather was threatening and the territory was unknown, I decided to catch a taxi back to Paddington. This turned out to be a little bit of a mistake, as the Olympic lanes were still in operation, and it was rush hour … It took a long time to reach my destination, but it was a fascinating journey. Steve the Cabbie and I had a great conversation. I told him all the things I had not had time to say on air – the fact that only 12% of 14 year old girls do enough exercise, that only 0.5% of corporate sponsorship in sport is given to women’s sport, and that only 5% of media coverage of sport is of women’s sport. I spoke about the backdrop to girls’ lives, and how they needed positive female role models who were valued for what they did, not how they appeared. He told me about his daughter, a recovering anorexic, and we agreed that while anorexia is a psychological illness, it didn’t help one jot to have all of these pictures of ‘perfect’ women around. Nor, he said, does it help boys: the number of boys in the eating disorders unit which his daughter had attended as an in-patient for 5 months had more than doubled in the past few years. Boys as well as girls are susceptible to the influences and images they see around them, and the backdrop of their lives is increasingly sexualised and airbrushed too.
So – for the sake of Steve the Cabbie, his daughter, and all our young girls and boys who need positive role models around them if they are to feel inspired and fulfil their great potential, let us keep the spirit of the Olympics alive. Let us not allow our female – or male – athletes to become sucked up into the celebrity machine and to become shadows of their physical, real selves. Let us re-run, again and again, those marvellous interviews just after the athletes got off the track, or out of the water: real people with real stories, real exhilaration, sometimes real pain, but above all … real.
These people are our heroes – ordinary, non-surgically altered people who have worked hard and given their all for their own self-respect and to try to win for their country. Beside them, the significance and power of airbrushed models will fade, and we will start the process of creating a more balanced, realistic, grounded backdrop to our society: a backdrop of positive, empowering images to influence the lives of our young people.
Let these Olympics truly and genuinely inspire the whole of the next generation.