The Welsh sporting community has reacted angrily to suggestions that women athletes should be steered towards ‘feminine’ activity such as ballet and cheerleading.
Recent comments by UK Minister for sport and diversity Helen Grant have caused uproar in the international sports community. Ms Grant spoke at Sochi Winter Olympics, where team GB’s women have won most of the UK’s medals, raising concerns that there is still a gap between the number of men and women participating in sport.
Ms Grant’s response was to advise that the sports community prioritise the kind of activities that young girls may prefer to be involved in – such as ballet and cheerleading – because they are perceived as more ‘feminine’.
Michaela Breeze, Commonwealth gold and silver medalist, Olympic weightlifter and former Team Wales captain, said: “These kinds of comments, from politicians especially, are a complete misconception.
“Equality in women’s sport has come a long way. We are seeing women compete internationally in powerful and highly athletic sports across the board.”
“Olympic gold medals for women’s boxing and tae-kwondo show that we can compete and be highly categorical,” she added.
Jane Thomas, a spokesperson for Sports Wales said: “We feel it’s important to listen to young people to find out what it is they want to take part in and what would motivate them to play more sport, whether that’s football, rugby, netball or street dance. Only when we give our young people a true voice can we start breaking down barriers to participation in sport.”
“Our vision is to get every child in Wales hooked on sport for life,” she added.
Ms Breeze said: “Shouldn’t we be encouraging more boys to do ballet and cheerleading too?”
Currently 1.8 million fewer women than men take part in regular sport.
In a survey by Sports Wales – the Welsh government’s sports development arm – of more than 110,000 Welsh schoolchildren, boys (44 per cent) were still more likely than girls (36 per cent) to participate regularly in sport and physical activity. Though the figures for both have increased, the gap remains static.
Sports Wales invests heavily in Welsh athletes who perform well at home and abroad.
Ms Thomas said: “We are very ambitious in our elite strategy, with a highly skilled sports science and medicine team that supports our athletes.”
Ms Thomas said: “We tend to invest in those sports that are set to make the biggest difference (so where we expect the biggest medal returns at Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, Paralympic Games).”
“For example, the sports that are considered category A are athletics, boxing, cycling, disability sport, shooting and swimming. This will be reviewed after Glasgow 2014.”
“But the categorisation process doesn’t mean that talented athletes in a sport which isn’t categorised don’t get support”, she added. “A good example is tri-athlete Helen Jenkins who receives a lot of support from us.”
Ms Breeze said: “It is thanks to Sport Wales that the country is so successful for its size. They really get behind you all the way.”
After a successful career, and several Olympic and Commonwealth games, Ms Breeze officially retired after captaining Team Wales and winning silver at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi 2010. But Ms Breeze is planning a return to international weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014.
“It was fairly easy to qualify and get back on the team”, she said. “But I definitely have a tough four months of training ahead of me.”
Ms Grant later denied saying that women ought to be allowed to play sports that allowed for a more ‘feminine’ look.
Ms Grant told the Guardian:” Those were not my words. My response then, and my response now, is very much that sport is for everyone.”
“You have to recognise that is not what every girl might want. As the minister, I have to look at – and will look at – what everyone wants. It really is a matter of saying ‘Well, if you don’t want to do that, then what might you like?'” added Grant, who is also equalities minister.
“It might be gymnastics, it might be ballet, it could be dance. It could be anything. I don’t really mind as long as we ask women and girls what they want and are prepared to give it to them. That’s the message I wanted to give,” she added.
By Lucy England