Full marks to Andy Murray, for calling out the cretinous remarks made by French DJ Martin Solveig after he had asked the first women’s Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg if she could twerk. “Another example of the ridiculous sexism that still exists in sport,” tweeted tennis star Murray. “To everyone who thinks people are overreacting and it was just a joke… it wasn’t. I’ve been involved in sport my whole life and the level of sexism is unreal.”
For anyone who hasn’t seen the incident onscreen, the Ballon d’Or is the annual football (or soccer) awards for the year’s best players. Solveig tells Hegerberg (a Norwegian playing for a French club team) that the young male player of the year Kylian Mbappé had joined in a joke played on him; the implication being that Hegerberg should do the same. That’s when he asked if she could twerk. Hegerberg says no and turns away, making it plain that she’s not going to get dragged into something so demeaning.
When Solveig got submerged by a tidal wave of online criticism, he posted an apology, in which he seemed genuinely mystified by the critical reaction, and blamed it on his poor grasp of English and English culture (he meant Anglo-Saxon, I presume); yet that begs the question as to what guys can get away with in France, or simply the French media. The case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose potential presidency of France was derailed when the French diplomat was hauled very publicly through the US courts for allegedly assaulting an African maid in his New York hotel in 2011 has obviously been long forgotten. (Strauss-Kahn apologised for inappropriate behaviour, and the case was dropped, but the woman in question received an alleged six-figure sum to drop a civil suit).
All of this feeds into the #MeToo movement, and many of the accusations worldwide are long overdue. What is intriguing, and a subject for debate much wider than this little news tributary will allow, is how this latest example of women’s emancipation (social-democratic in nature) has made so much headway in a world where international politics has lurched so blatantly to the right. The examples are legion – Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Phillipines, not to mention the baleful examples of Putin and Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
However, to get back to familiar territory, the history of women’s struggle to get involved in track and field athletics is hardly covered in glory. There were no women whatsoever in the Ancient Games (except by default), and none in the first modern Games in 1896, with only a handful later in tennis, golf, croquet (the genteel sports?); athletics was only introduced in 1928, with the inclusion of the 100 and 800 metres, with the short relay, high jump and discus. The 800 metres was promptly dropped, since the competitors were thought to be overly-exhausted….. and not re-introduced until 1960. It still took decades for the men’s programme to be mirrored by the women’s; even then, or rather now, we have heptathlon instead of decathlon, but I don’t doubt that will eventually change. And why not?
But it was an addition to the IAAF Hall of Fame exhibits over the weekend which excited my attention. Among the artefacts donated by relatives of all-time athletics’ greats like Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Emil Zatopek, and Irena Szewinska, was a letter sent to Blankers-Koen in 1949, the year after her quadruple gold medal success in the Olympic Games in London. It was my privilege to interview FBK at an event she attended in London in the mid-1980s, and she was funny, lively, gracious, and utterly unpretentious; just as she was in Monaco in 1999, when she was given the Female Athlete of the Century award at the IAAF Gala. What was particularly endearing about that occasion was FBK turning up to the press conference, blithely unaware that she has won the award. When she was asked about it, she did a double-take, and said, “Me? I won it”.
One of the most distasteful aspects of the British newspaper reports of her Olympic successes at Wembley Stadium in 1948 was the description of her as ‘The Dutch Housewife’. Yes, but what about the four gold medals? you are prompted to ask. In that 1949 letter, reproduced above, one her compatriots went a lot further. And it is to FBK’s eternal credit (she died in 2004, incidentally) that she kept the letter. And I can understand that in a way. As a journalist, I would occasionally get splenetic missives like this. And I understood that the criticisms said far more about the writer of the letter than they said about the recipient.
Here is the text of the above letter. It is an English translation of the original:
It is still not done with you as a wedded wife and mother of two poor children, to be running and (high) jumping bare-legged? And that at your age, I mean for sports.
A wedded wife and mother should be taking care of the household. What you are doing, you should leave it for the youth!
Actually, you should never have gotten married, because in each city you have another lover. What I heard about you is very poor and low.
Those poor children of yours. Lately a lady in Amsterdam told me, they do not even know they have a mother. And your old husband just has to cope with all of this.
A 34 years old married woman with two children who runs and jumps bare-legged is simply disgusting. Just go and do some better and useful job!
Lady v.d. Goes v. Naters
(translated from old Dutch by Michel Schwartzwälder)
It’s a sad reminder that very often, women’s greatest critics are other women!