While sports can bring a nation together, it also has the power to divide a nation and opinion. There are many sides to sport that can be celebrated, but there is also a dark side to sport that many female athletes and competitors endure.
There are many ‘sporting’ fans out there that are prepared to direct their unwarranted opinions at the sporting elite across various social media platforms and while we live in an online generation and one in which we champion free speech, the vile messages that are banded about and directed at our top level athletes can be extremely detrimental. These sports stars have sacrificed more than we will ever know and have worked harder behind the scenes than we can even fathom, yet they find themselves at the mercy of the ‘Great British’ public.
I spoke to a man who was an active ‘twitter troll’ and as a typical keyboard warrior, wanted to remain anonymous. When asked why he abused sports stars on line he said: “I have to get my opinion across, someone needs to let them know how badly they have played."
“There’s no need to tread on eggshells on the internet."
“Most of the time it’s light hearted banter.”
But how is mocking these sports stars’ appearance, their family and their achievements ‘light hearted banter’? Rebecca Adlington, perhaps our most successful female swimmer ever, proudly sporting gold and bronze Olympic medals, has been trolled mercilessly.
With four Olympic medals, she shares the honour of being the most decorated female British Olympian with rower Katherine Grainger. She competed for her love of the sport and didn’t become a swimmer for fame, but this additional exposure has at times been very damaging to her.
Adlington once outed an online abuser and re-tweeted it to her followers to expose the suffering she has endured. At the time, she spoke of being mocked for her appearance rather than for her performance in the pool and spoke openly about how the online abuse knocked her confidence.
She told the Guardian that she believes about 80% of the abuse she receives is from men, but it is the other 20% that hurts the most. "I find it worse when women message me," she said. "I think: 'What are you doing? We girls need to stick together.'"
Sports women such as Adlington should be commended for their incredible achievements, not publically criticised. Her job is to compete at the top level; a role that is very pressurised and demanding and it is not in her job specification to sit back and receive vile abuse from individuals online.
Since retiring, Adlington has become an ambassador for swimming and women’s sport and has been named as a patron of charity Women In Sport.
“As an athlete, and as a mum, I know first-hand how important it is for young girls in particular to have strong role models in their lives to encourage them to take part in sport.
“I hope that through speaking out in my role as patron, I will be able to make a positive difference to the way women and girls experience sport, from the field of play to the boardroom.”
She certainly has made her mark and is an incredible role model for all women. The other side of sport that sits under a dark cloud is the inequality experienced by top-flight athletes, particular females compared to males.
Take the England women’s rugby team, they won the World Cup, yet the coverage of their matches pales in comparison to the men’s rugby tea- who couldn’t progress beyond the group stages.
Working in a male dominated environment I was recently privy to a conversation where women’s sport V male sport was compared to the Paralympics V the Olympics. Why should either be viewed as second rate sport?! These athletes are at the top of their game, they’ve sacrificed a lot and dedicated their life to their sport yet are lambasted by ‘armchair coaches’.
Until women’s sport is held in the same prestige as male sports, comparisons such as this will continue to be drawn.
Until measures are put in place to protect our sporting stars on the internet, they will continue to be ‘trolled’ and bullied online.
There is much that needs to be addressed to reduce and eliminate the ‘dark side of sport’ and it can start with attitudes at grass-roots level being addresses.
All of us involved in sport, in whatever capacity that may be, can change the future of women’s sport.
Images from Nike