independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Colette Browne: It's game, set and match to a true champ who knows winning isn't pretty

Comments made on the BBC about Marion Bartoli have sparked protest

NOT being a huge tennis fan, I was surprised to learn that being a tall leggy blonde is as important as the ability to hit a ball if you want to be a Grand Slam champion.

In my naivete, I thought athleticism, training and natural talent were the most important factors when it comes to the success of professional tennis players. Luckily, BBC Wimbledon commentator John Inverdale has belatedly disabused me of my embarrassing ignorance.

Speaking on Saturday, after Marion Bartoli won the women's singles title in decisive fashion, Inverdale mused that the French woman has overcome an appalling disability – her appearance – to rise to greatness.

"Do you think," he wondered, "Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'you're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a (Maria) Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight?'"

It is for this amazingly incisive analysis that the Beeb is paying Inverdale the big bucks. Truly, his thoughtful commentary was the very definition of public service broadcasting.

After all, what father, when their adolescent daughter shows an interest in a sport, hasn't sat her down and said: "Look, you don't conform to conventional standards of beauty so maybe you better just put a bag over your head and stand on the sidelines cheering on the pretty girls for the rest of your life."

Presumably, Inverdale suspects Wayne Rooney's father had a similar conversation with him when he was a lad kicking a ball around the back garden.

"Wayne, this is a bit delicate, but you're kind of squat and, let's face it, you'll never be used by Calvin Klein to model his underpants, so maybe you should just learn a trade and put this silly soccer caper behind you."

Hang on, no. That conversation could never have happened because Rooney is a man so no one, including BBC broadcasters, cares what he looks like.

But because Bartoli is a woman, her appearance is considered more noteworthy than her professional accomplishments.

She may have won the trophy at Wimbledon, but did you see the state of her hair? And also, in all honesty, even though she is an athlete at the peak of her fitness, she doesn't look nearly emaciated enough and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Unsurprisingly, Inverdale's comments were greeted with howls of protest from those who don't think women necessarily have to look like a supermodel to excel at sport. Perplexed by the public anger, the broadcaster attempted to clarify his remarks, by gamely picking up a shovel and enthusiastically digging.

He said his denigration of Bartoli's appearance was done in a "nice way", adding that she "is an incredible role model for people who aren't born with all the attributes of natural athletes".

In short, he is still persisting with his thesis that one has to resemble a blonde Amazonian goddess in order to have any real chance of success.

It should be noted at this point that Bartoli is not a Quasimodo lookalike. She is a pretty brunette who, amazingly, managed to overcome this crippling physical deformity and is now ranked No 7 in the world.

Proving she could teach Inverdale something about class, as well as tennis, Bartoli responded to the remarks like a true champion.

"I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact," she deadpanned. "Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."

Game. Set. And match.

While Bartoli treated the cretinous comments with the derision they deserve, how many young girls will have been put off taking part in tennis because they now think that you have to look like Anna Kournikova to compete?

According to research published last year, just 12pc of 14-year-old girls are taking part in the recommended amount of physical activity.

Is it any wonder when women's sports account for just 5pc of media coverage and, on those rare occasions when the media deigns to cover an event, female athletes are not just judged for their performances, but how they look as they compete?

Boys' sporting heroes are the men they watch on TV every week while girls lionise the women photographed in bikinis in magazines, whose sporting achievements are mentioned as an afterthought.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter perfectly encapsulated this causal objectification when he suggested that female footballers should wear skimpier outfits in order to increase the popularity of the game.

"Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball," he said. "They could, for example, have tighter shorts."

The message, from knuckle-draggers like Blatter, is that women's skill, grit and determination on the field of play doesn't matter a whit. All that matters is that they look pretty and provide titillation for a lascivious audience.

Inverdale should be sanctioned for his patronising jibe, but, really, he's just a symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Irish Independent

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