Tuesday 20 August 2019

No Payne no gain as jockey highlights chauvinism

Melbourne Cup winner does women in sport a favour by calling it as it is

Michelle Payne with her trophy
Michelle Payne with her trophy
Michelle Payne wins the Melbourne Cup aboard Pirates of Penzance
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

I don't know what I enjoyed more: watching jockey Michelle Payne win the Melbourne Cup earlier this week or watching her tell certain people to "get stuffed".

After becoming the first female jockey to win the biggest race in Australia horse-racing, Payne said some of the owners of Prince of Penzance wanted to get rid of her. "It's such a chauvinistic sport," Payne stated. "I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because they think women aren't strong enough but we just beat the world."

Now imagine instead of her "get stuffed" statement, if Payne had taken the easier route of just humbly and subserviently thanking everyone before quietly making her exit.

But you know what? Humility can go and get stuffed here because there was a bigger issue which needed air-time. And what better moment to call out your sport and its chauvinism than at a time when everyone is watching and listening to you.

Bravo Payne.

Bravo for not allowing victory be an excuse for letting others off the hook. And especially in a sport which continues to roll-out the "Ladies Day" oddity. As if the only way women can be incentivised to go to the races is by enticing us to get dolled-up for a show and tell.

As well as Payne, Susie Wolff was another woman who this week highlighted the gap between men and women in her sport. Except it isn't even a gap, as her sport is the exclusive all-boys club also known as Formula 1. Wolff announced she will retire and so will never achieve her aim of driving in a Formula 1 race. The closest she came to it was when she competed in the first practice sessions at a few Grand Prix meetings.


"There were those who wanted it to happen. Those who didn't," Wolff wrote this week about never starting a F1 Grand Prix race. "Do I think F1 is ready for a competitive female racing driver that can perform at the highest level? Yes. Do I think it is achievable as a woman? Most definitely. Do I think it will happen soon? Sadly no. We have two issues, not enough young girls starting in karting at a young age and no clear role model. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it".

I wish more women like Payne and Wolff called it as it is in their sport. I wish tennis player Eugenie Bouchard showed the same chutzpah as Payne in Melbourne earlier this year at the Australian Open. I wish Bouchard had told her male interviewer to "get stuffed" after he asked her "can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit" in an interview on court straight after one of her matches.

What was almost more disappointing than the eeitry from the interviewer was that Bouchard didn't want to call him out on it.

"I stay out of this stuff," Bouchard said in a separate interview after. "You know I'm fine with being asked to twirl if they ask the guys to flex their muscles and stuff."

No, Bouchard didn't want to flex her muscles on this. Maybe she's just happy to keep smiling, putting up with this kind of eejitry and remaining an advertisers' dream which generally involves lookin' good and saying nothin'.

Eejitry in the media has a lot to answer for in helping to create a perception of women's sports because of the way they present it. Just ask Bouchard. After one of the biggest wins of her career at the Australian Open last year, TV reporter Samantha Smith said to her: "You're getting a lot of fans here. A lot of them male. And they want to know, if you could date anyone in the world of sport, movies - I'm sorry, they asked me to say this - who would you date?"

Shame on you Smith. The story then became about Bouchard's answer to the question which was (this just gets worse) Justin Bieber.

Do you know what Rafa Nadal said when he was asked a similar question on court? Of course you don't. Because he would never be asked that kind of question. The website www.covertheathlete.com (#covertheathlete) was created because of this inequality. It recently released a video using sexist commentary and inappropriate questions which have been asked to female athletes with reactions from male athletes sliced into the video. It helps form an easy picture of how you imagine a male athlete would react if he was ever asked a question like: "can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?"


As much as someone like Cristiano Ronaldo is also known for his love of bling, threads and, well, himself, I'm pretty damn certain he's never been asked about his looks or who he would like to date straight after a Champions League match. So how can anyone think it is ok to ask a woman a similar question straight after one of her games?

But how really effective are soundbites anyway? Last week US President Barack Obama welcomed the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup-winning USA team to the White House. He may have finally found that rhetoric he was renowned for before his presidency when he said: "This team taught all America's children that playing like a girl means you're a badass".

Earlier this week Serena Williams seemed pretty happy with herself when she chased down a guy who stole her mobile phone. She posted on social media: "Superhero? Maybe? Or HELL YEA!! I've got the speed the jumps, the power, the body, the seduction, the sex appeal, the strength, the leadership and yet the calm to weather the storm…Fight for what's right. Stand for what you believe in! Be a superhero!"

Yes, all of the above feel like Disneyland-spun lines which soon run on empty, are easily bought and just as easily forgotten.

Changing sport for women isn't about soundbites. It's about social conditioning. One interesting initiative which seems to be making a mark in the UK is the 'This Girl Can' national campaign which has been developed by Sport England and other partnership organisations. #thisgirlcan encourages women to get involved in an activity no matter how well they do it or how they look. They have slogans too of course like: "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox".

Last month a women in sport conference at Dublin Castle looked at the potential for starting an Irish equivalent of #thisgirlcan. While the UK version cost £10m, this cost could be refined for an Irish market. A campaign for Irish women and girls to connect on social media and get themselves off the couch and involved in an activity is undoubtedly worth looking at.

As well as having women who, as Wolff describes, fill the role of "seeing is believing", sport needs to be normalised for women and girls from the bottom up. A female athlete should never have to stand on the biggest and proudest day of her career and talk about chauvinism in her sport. Payne did us all favour by having the balls to speak out.

No Payne. No gain.

Irish Independent

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