A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Saturday, 3 December 2011

BBC Sports Coverage Is Down to Popularity, Not Gender

Women's Gaelic football. Not big in non-Olympic years.

Television presenter Clare Balding - one of those chosen by the BBC to cover the Olympic Games in London next year - has criticised its coverage of female sport during non-Olympic years, saying that it is possibly 'sexist.' She accused the Beeb of failing to devote enough time to female events and female participants, asserting that excellent sportswomen are often overlooked due to the amount of resources spent on rugby and football and other big international championships.

It's not the first time that the BBC's sports coverage has courted controversy. Earlier this week, it was criticised for an all-male shortlist of contenders for Sports Personality of the Year. Notable feminists made much hay out of that particular ray of sunlight, including Harriet Harman (deputy leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, in case you'd forgotten).

There is a lot to criticise regarding the BBC's decision: why are there no fewer than three golfers in the top ten? Why do tit'n'bum mags get to put forward candidates when abs'n'stubble ones don't? Why do people who've had quite average years by their standards still make the cut? But to assume 'sexism' as the default explanation is to miss the vital issue. Which sports are covered on which television channels depends on their popularity - not the gender of the participants.

Few men would say that Chrissie Wellington, arguably one of the best endurance athletes in the world and current Ironman Triathlon World Champion, should be automatically excluded from the running because she is female. It is a matter of popularity. How many people watch the triathlon world championships, compared to those who watch the Premier League? The difference is well into the hundreds of millions.

Let's take a look at some of the (eminently deserving) candidates that Ms Harman put forward, other than the Chrissinator: Jessica Ennis, Rebecca Adlington, Keri-Anne Payne, Sarah Stevenson. Most people know the first two, but many do so because of their appearance on advertisements or an unfortunate encounter with a comedian. Not many who've heard either name can claim to be avid watchers of the sport. And it's not just women who miss out because their sport isn't as popular as others. Does Harriet Harman know who the current male athletics champion is? Or the taekwondo one, for that matter?

The BBC, for as long as everyone has to pay for it, ought to cater for everyone. Considering that everyone with a television pays the license fee, their sporting preferences notwithstanding, they should all be able to flick on and see their favourite sport given due time and attention. But to expect less popular sports to be given undue time and attention just because they happen to have excellent female participants is unrealistic and unfair.

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