Johnny Watterson: One step forward, two steps back for women’s sport

Same week Katie Taylor headlining on Sky boxing event, the Ladies European Tour backslides

 Emily Kristine Pedersen  poses next to the trophy after winning the Saudi Ladies International   at the King Abdullah Economic City, north of Jeddah. Photograph:  Amer Hilabi/AFP via Getty Images

Emily Kristine Pedersen poses next to the trophy after winning the Saudi Ladies International at the King Abdullah Economic City, north of Jeddah. Photograph: Amer Hilabi/AFP via Getty Images

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The pier walk threw out a couple of lines from the swarthy Welsh love machine Tom Jones in a hit from 1971. The braggadocio anthem, She’s a Lady, was written by Paul Anca and reached number two in the charts.

“But she always knows her place. She’s got style, she’s got grace, she’s a winner.”

So was the song a winner. It was Jones’s biggest selling single of all time. Not a murmur when it came out, then stylishly reflecting the thinking of 50 years ago and the freewheeling misogyny of the 1960s bubbling over into the next decade.

This week Katie Taylor was named for the first time the best pound for pound professional female boxer in the world and it was also the week women’s golf pitched its tent in the Royal Greens Golf Club on the Red Sea Coast near Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, the latter showing there are people who continue to run the rule over women’s sport with the eye of Anca and groove of Jones, years on still wearing platform soles.

In boxing, those people, mostly men, dismiss Taylor outright because she’s a woman who boxes. They mistakenly see their brand as a benevolent version of chauvinism. They deny her credibility, her position, her achievements and her place in history because they believe they know what’s better for a woman than the woman herself.

“Well, she’s never in the way. Always something nice to say and what a blessin’.”

It’s difficult for them to see beyond the tye-dyes, paisley designed cravats and the military surplus clothing, to understand what progress in sport means. They are stuck in their bell-bottoms.

That was highlighted this week in another forum, a meeting of the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Sport Ireland chairman Kieran Mulvey told the House that in a survey conducted over the last five years coverage of women’s sport in the media had risen by 1.1 per cent.

It is an ongoing arm wrestle and sometimes hard to see progress. So too when something emerges that on the face of it appears modern and progressive, but turns out to be as smartly thought out as the view of the old growler on the couch farting out tired theories on why Taylor and boxing just doesn’t look right.

Sky staged a boxing event on Saturday with Taylor the headline act. Free, it generated more than 1.5 million views on Facebook, 550k on Sky Sports. It was progressive.

But staging the Ladies European Tour golf event under the watchful gaze of the House of Saud stank of old school thinking circa the apartheid years. Few can envisage young Saudi women golfers throwing themselves at the doors of the Royal Greens Golf Club like the White Walkers leaping over the cliff in Game of Thrones.

The decision to play also ensured some members would be regarded as felons as soon as they stepped off the plane. British golfer Mel Reid, who came out as gay in 2018 stayed away. Homosexuality is illegal In Saudi Arabia, ultimately punishable by death. Another top English player Meghan MacLaren also boycotted.

Behind bars

“We take for granted a lot of choices and freedoms we have, but I try to make decisions based on who I am as a person, not just a golfer,” she carefully explained turning down the chance of competing for a $1.5m prize fund from two events, the Saudi Ladies International and Saudi Ladies Team International.

“With leading Saudi women’s rights activists currently languishing behind bars, there’s an unmistakable irony to the spectacle of Saudi Arabia throwing open its heavily-watered greens to the world’s leading women golfers like this,” Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, told the Guardian in September.

“Under the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major sportswashing drive to distract from its abysmal human rights record.”

Following the men’s Tour, many of the leading women golfers did travel. They were ‘permitted’ to wear mid-calf or three-quarter length cut away trousers and short-sleeved polo shirts, a full bare leg offensive.

“I can leave her on her own. Knowin’ she’s okay alone and there’s no messin.’”

The Saudis have played it like the autocratic monarchy are opening their thawbs (robes) to a modern world, but ensuring that any women wishing to join the golf club or watch the Europeans play must first seek permission from a male guardian.

There are many red flags, the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the horror of Yemen. But Saudi laws and culture particularly and relentlessly target women. The first female athletes from the state to compete in the Olympic Games were Wojdan Shaherkani in judo and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar at London 2012. Four female athletes were approved to compete in Rio 2016.

Such is the power of the leader Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), even the snarling clerics are at heel. The European Ladies Tour has just strengthened that grip, damaged notions of gender equality, offended individual members like Reid and shown itself to drool just as much as the men’s tour did at fat prize funds.

That leaves a women’s golf tour as active participants in an inflated PR stunt designed to shine the image of a state that finds women objectionable in normal sporting life. The Sex God’s biggest hit, MBS could have written it himself.

“And the lady is mine.”

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