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Past and present: A 50-year celebration of British Sportswomen

Updated Tuesday 28th May 2019

Jessica Pinchbeck, a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Fitness at The Open University, reflects on her sporting heroes and charts the success of female sportswomen.

Creative commons image Icon Image by Matt Batchelor on Flickr. under Creative-Commons license Trying to compile an article to celebrate British women in sport over the last 50 years was initially very overwhelming! With so many great athletes to choose from, I decided to start by reflecting upon my own personal heroes. Barcelona 1992 was the earliest Olympics I remember as a child, and so my first sporting idol had to be Sally Gunnell (pictured right). That gold medal winning 400m hurdle race is etched firmly in my mind as one of the greatest sporting moments of all time and one that got me hooked on the Olympics and sport in general. Gunnell went on to become World champion in 1993 and set a new World record (which remains the British 400m hurdle record to this day). Since Gunnell “no other woman has held Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic track titles concurrently”. But what other British sportswomen achieved success before and after her?

If we turn the clock back 50 years to 1969, at the forefront of British sport was tennis player Ann Jones, who spent 13 years ranked in the World top 10, making her one of the greatest tennis players of the 1960s. The pinnacle of Jones’ career was beating Billie Jean King to claim the Wimbledon singles title in 1969. Eight years later Virginia Wade became the golden girl of British tennis and followed in Jones’ footsteps also gaining the Wimbledon singles title. Although these players came before my time their legacy remains, with Wade being the last British female to have won any Grand Slam titles, and so both take a spot in my all-time greats list!

Whitbread was abandoned as a baby, spending her childhood between a series of children’s homes before returning to her mother for visits at the age of 10, where she was subsequently abused. It wasn’t until Whitbread discovered a passion for athletics that her life changed course.

Moving from tennis back to track and field, we find the inspirational athlete Mary Peters who, in 1972, already Commonwealth champion, became a heroine to British sport when she won the only British gold medal of the Munich games in the Pentathlon. With the Troubles in Northern Ireland at its peak, Peters’ victory was poignant for reasons beyond simply sporting achievement with both sides of the community coming together to celebrate. Another of my heroes is Fatima Whitbread who became World champion in 1987.

Although boasting a great career, Whitbread never managed an Olympic gold but won a silver (1988) and a bronze (1984). However, it is Whitbread’s story that makes her, in my mind, a true inspiration. Whitbread was abandoned as a baby, spending her childhood between a series of children’s homes before returning to her mother for visits at the age of 10, where she was subsequently abused. It wasn’t until Whitbread discovered a passion for athletics that her life changed course; her athletics coach adopted her and her full potential was achieved.  

Staying with athletics, a sport featuring an abundance of inspirational women, distance runners Liz McColgan and Paula Radcliffe boast many accolades between them, however of particular inspiration to me is their continued success following motherhood, with McColgan winning the 1991 World championships a year after giving birth and Radcliffe winning the 2007 New York marathon just 10 months after the birth of her daughter. Likewise, heptathlete Jess Ennis-Hill, best known for her Olympic gold in London 2012, also became World champion in 2015 after taking time out to become a mum. For similar reasons, and flying the flag for not only mothers but older women in sport, Jo Pavey provides inspiration for winning her European gold medal in the 10,000m at the age of 40 and for her ambition to be the first British runner to compete at six Olympics.

Jessica Ennis Creative commons image Icon Image by Al King on Flickr under Creative-Commons license

London 2012 saw the rise of more great British female athletes with Nicola Adams making history to be the first woman to win Olympic gold in boxing before going on to win Commonwealth gold in 2014 and repeating her Olympic success in 2016. Her prowess both in and outside the ring continues to provide inspiration to many, especially those within the LGBT community. Providing equal inspiration to those within disability sport, Hannah Cockroft, born with cerebral palsy, won two Olympic gold medals at London 2012, three gold medals in Rio 2016 and holds four World records. She also works tirelessly to promote the benefits of disability sport and to encourage participation. 

Creative commons image Icon Image by Scoot Cawley on Flickr under Creative-Commons license As a team-sport player myself, it is also worth noting that some of the most celebrated moments in recent British women’s sport have resulted from the growth of female team sports with fantastic performances such as the rise of the Great Britain women’s hockey team to achieve Olympic gold in 2016 and under the strong leadership of Tracey Neville, the England netball team gaining Commonwealth Gold in 2018. In a positive move for women’s sport the England women’s rugby team, who won the World cup in 2014, have all been awarded professional contracts for the 2019 season and not to be outdone, in 2017 the England women’s cricket team also achieved World cup success.

There are of course many more women and teams that I could mention but these athletes have particularly inspired me, not only for their sporting achievement but also for what their success stands for in the World, whether this is overcoming abuse, appeasing political troubles, embracing motherhood or being role models, women’s sport in Britain is continuing to grow and inspire future generations of women to take part and compete at all levels.

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