Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

Day five Pt 1

I am mentally exhausted after last night, and need to get this out of my system. I did watch the famous runner Usain Bolt easily win the 200m, and I loved the fact that Jamaica won silver and bronze, too. Nice grouping. I was, however, part-impressed, part-horrified that the BBC made a short film about the burning issue of whether the dominance of black athletes in running is about genetics or eugenics. This film took in slavery, Hitler and Darwin, and was intended as a talking point. However, I think John Inverdale handled the ensuing studio discussion – with grumpy Michael Johnson (who made a doc for C4 on the same subject), noncommital Colin Jackson and diplomatic Denise Lewis – really badly, almost as if it was his mission to get a black person to say, “Yes, all black people are alike.”

Was this really the time to have this thorny discussion, BBC? In the build-up to the much-hyped 200m final? It would be churlish to ignore the visibility of black athletes in these events (only one white finalist, a Frenchman), but the debate about genetics versus environment, nature versus nurture, is way too complex to bat around in a studio in a couple of minutes. Johnson seemed to become more and more entrenched behind “nurture” in the face of Inverdale’s evangelism for “nature”, and I must admit I came down on Johnson’s side, for all his over-seriousness. Meanwhile, Lewis wisely threw in climate as a factor. Africa, the West Indies, these are hot countries, and warmth has an effect on muscle; also, it’s self-pollinating – when a country becomes known for certain sports, there is a culture in that country for that sport to be taken up.

As I say, not a quickie for filling time in the studio. Never mind the science; it’s always a potentially reductive argument to say that certain traits are specific to black people, or white people, or indeed to men or women. Black people had to play the minstrel or the butler for decades before civil rights evened up the playing field. If most of the best soul singers are black it’s not necessarily because of genetics, but it could be argued that it’s deeply rooted in the blues and the experiences of slavery. From that starting point, it’s surely the culture of soulful expression that breeds further soulful expression. (How many great soul singers learned to sing in church? That’s not genetic. That’s environmental and social.)

Let’s move on to sexism. This is much easier to treat as a black and white subject than black and white, as the genders are much more clearly defined. At the end of his interview with Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams – women’s boxing’s first ever – Gary Lineker complimented her on her “beautiful smile.” It was his sign-off to the interview, and I’m sure, in the split-second heat of the moment, his brain told him it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. He lightheartedly congratulated her for not crying like so many other medal winners, male and female, and applauded her for smiling – that’s the context. “You’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, as a compliment, perhaps unaware that he was not judging a beauty contest. Hey, she has got a nice smile. But she was not being interviewed about her smile, rather, about her amazing prowess in a sport this is only now finally achieving parity within a traditionally male-dominated sport. As such, at such a sensitive moment in the history of women’s liberation, “You’ve got a beautiful smile” made me squirm in my sofa.

Would he have said this to a male athlete? I think not. Would Gaby Logan have said it to a male athlete? Or a female athlete? I think not. It came across as patronising, passive-aggressive and … to use an old-fashioned term … sexist.

Even by writing the word “sexist” down, I realise I sound like a fossil from another century. But casual sexism – the sharp end of which is the abuse and oppression of women, domestic, religious and institutional – has not been eradicated, any more than racism has, or homophobia, or xenophobia, despite great strides in the West and elsewhere.

These were the issues we worried a lot about in the 80s, although by the 90s it had become fashionable to be sexist again. I never bought it. The values I built up over the course of the 1980s have stayed with me. I do not apologise for that.

I Tweeted about Lineker’s sexist remark, and found myself having to debate the matter with people coming at me from all directions. I did my best to reply to the replies that merited a reply, and in many cases found myself in parallel dialogues with all sorts of people I have never met. Many simply concurred. That gave me strength that the fight against sexism is not totally forgotten. The majority of challenges came from men, unsurprisingly. This, in precis, is how the counter-argument ran:

Nicola Adams has got a beautiful smile.

I never said she hadn’t. If I sat at home and commented, “She’s got a beautiful smile,” that would be a perfectly valid observation to make; a subjective one, but valid. I wouldn’t say it to her, necessarily, unless its intention was absolutely understood and we knew each other well. Meanwhile, if I was a powerful, well-paid, well-known male BBC anchorman interviewing Nicola Adam for an important post-win live broadcast on a sports programme about her sporting achievement, I would never comment upon a physical attribute that had nothing to do with that achievement. She does not box with her smile. (Someone said that Clare Balding has commented on Chris Hoy’s thighs; firstly, I bet she didn’t do it to his face; and secondly, his thighs are absolutely intrinsic to his sporting achievement, so you could justify it in any case. We’re allowed to appreciate the physical appearance and attributes of others; this is not about thoughtcrime, it’s about how we express ourselves and what we say out loud.)

Context is key. Women’s boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. That’s historic. Nicola Adams is GB’s first medal-winning female Olympic boxer, and the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport ever. She is historic. She is a powerful sportsperson, and, you might argue, an even more powerful sportswoman. Boxing federations have fought hard (ha ha) against women’s boxing being regarded as equal to men’s. I don’t even like boxing, but if men are allowed to punch each other for sport, then so should women be. It strikes me as subtly patronising that women are allowed to box like men, but are still expected to fight shorter rounds (four rounds of two minutes, as opposed to three rounds of three minutes for men), but one assumes this might even out in time. Since you ask, yes, I also think it’s bizarre that women play fewer sets in tennis. Women had to fight to get equal prize money in tennis and were quite prepared to play five sets in order to achieve that at Wimbledon, but the tennis federation left it at three sets. Hey, don’t want Wimbledon to go on too long, do we? Get the women’s matches out of the way quickly and bring on the men. (Anybody doubt that the Williams sisters could go five sets? Or beat the men?)

I’m not much of an expert on sport, as you know, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but women’s football matches are played to 90 minutes, right? (Another victory for women at the Games.) And so it should be. Women should surely be allowed to do the decathlon, too. Institutionalised sexism is all around us, never mind in sport – equal pay, anyone? – so it’s not missing the issue to get upset about a boorish remark made by a male TV presenter to a female athlete. (It was as if this woman in front of him was so powerful, he felt some subconscious urge to attempt to reduce her to a lovely smile.)

I’ve had some vexing responses to my arguments on Twitter, too. One person told me that I am “part of the problem” and that “the media” are too quick to brand someone sexist or racist. (This smacks of the Daily Mail‘s feverish fantasy about “the PC Brigade”.) I’ve also basically been accused of being a killjoy and a sourpuss and been advised to celebrate the fact that a man has complimented a lady. (One Tweeter, female, said, “It is a terrific smile: there has been a fair bit of smile coverage over the Games. Try it yourself!” – which is the reverse-equivalent of a builder on some scaffolding shouting out to a fetching lady, “Cheer up, love!”)

Well, I’m old enough not to worry about being regarded as a grump, or a fossil, and I’m afraid I’m sticking to my guns. The “isms” must be policed, by all of us, wherever they are found. Just as apartheid, segregation and ghettoisation are the logical conclusion of unchecked casual racism, casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing. But had beautiful smiles!

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