The Glasgow golden girls and Wales’ greatest athletes

WALES has enjoyed one of its best ever Commonwealth Games but will female driven success mark a shift in perception of women’s sport in Wales?


Kirsty Wade (821) running the 1,500m at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games

The Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke has previously said the BBC should be obliged to give equal coverage to women’s sports but another Welsh athlete who can lay claim to the title ‘Welsh sporting great’ has disputed what can appear to be an easily accepted notion that sportswomen receive less recognition than their male counterparts.

Kirsty Wade was the golden girl of Welsh athletics in the 1980s, taking gold for Wales in both the 1,500 metres and 800m at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh to add to her 800m Commonwealth gold from 1982.

Of the record Welsh medal haul of 36 in Glasgow half, and four of the five golds, were won by women. Gymnast Frankie Jones bagged six medals including Wales’ first gold of the games. Swimmers Georgia Davies and Jazz Carlin also secured Commonwealth titles.

In May this year I interviewed Kirsty in Llandrindod Wells, Powys, the town where she’d grown up. She had returned to carry the Queen’s Baton Relay during the Welsh leg of its journey to Scotland through the nations and territories that English and then British imperial forces trampled through to give us the modern Commonwealth.

My failure to predict the Welsh women’s record breaking success meant I didn’t directly question Kirsty, who now lives in Scotland’s outer nowhere, about whether Welsh sportswomen get the recognition they are due. However I did ask Kirsty about her place among Welsh sporting greats and whether Britain’s female athletes get due recognition.

The 51-year-old, who also competed at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as well as in the 1,500m finals at the 1987 and 1991 World Athletics Championships for Great Britain and Northern Ireland seemed a little embarrassed at my suggestion she ranks alongside the greats of Welsh sport, but she is one of the few women inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame.

Kirsty cited Olympic disappointments and a failure to break four minutes for 1,500m as the case against but acknowledged much of her career was run in the menacing shadow of the former Eastern Block and state backed doping programmes. She spoke candidly and with empathy about the pressure on her often steroid enhanced rivals in the interview published in The Brecon & Radnor Express.

But Kirsty wasn’t convinced the likes of Sheffield’s London 2012 heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill or 2000 Olympics multi-event gold medal winner and now BBC pundit Denise Lewis struggle for coverage, especially when compared with some other sportswomen.

“I think athletics for women is one of these sports that gets more publicity than say if you’re a very good female cricketer or a female rugby player. It’s an odd thing to say but probably women athletes are seen as slightly glamorous, a Denise Lewis sort of gloss about them that’s very marketable,” said Kirsty.

“They get a lot of the interviews, they get the nice photographs in a way in which perhaps, other less publicised sports or sports that are seen as male dominated, don’t. So for instance our (England’s) women’s cricket team is really good but you know you won’t see as much of them, as you do see complaining about the male cricket team that’s not doing so well.

“You look at someone like Jessica Ennis and you can’t say there was any male athlete who’s been a decathlete who couldn’t ever of got any less or more coverage than Jessica got. There is more of an equality in athletics yes and Jessica is probably quite a good example. There’s no way that a male decathlete would have got any more publicity than Jessica got. You know Jessica could not of got more (publicity).”

Cycling, with stars such as Victoria Pendleton, is arguably another sport in which women competitors enjoy as high a profile as their male counterparts, many would say in part due Nicole Cooke’s influence as the greatest cyclist of her generation. Now retired Cooke hasn’t been afraid to voice criticism of sexism in cycling and has highlighted what she saw as a shortcoming in the BBC’s coverage of women’s sports.

Some might say Nicole, who probably wouldn’t have shied away from some of the robust reporting high profile (that is men’s) sports receive, should be more careful of what she wishes for future generations.

Weeks before their first ever Commonwealth Games appearance Melissa Hyndman was sacked as the coach of the Welsh netball team.

The only explanation ever offered was from the coach herself who said she was dismissed for sipping cocktails at the conclusion of a tournament in the Cook Islands and telling her charges about a player review, contrary to instructions from her bosses.

While no sensible person, or even journalist, would have wanted to see the Welsh netball captain questioned on live TV to the brink of a stroke, it’s fair to say the dismissal of Welsh netball’s most successful coach received far less attention than the unceremonious removal of a successful rugby coach.

Quality of coverage women’s sports receive aside, let’s hope the legacy of Glasgow 2014 will be that when it comes to discussing Wales’ greatest ‘sportsman’ a Frankie Jones, Georgia Davies, Nicole Cooke, Kirsty Wade or Tanni Grey-Thompson are given as much consideration as Gareth Edwards, John Charles, Colin Jackson or Paulo Radmilovic.

Welsh sportsmen and women have became known as some of the greatest to have ever played their sports, have set world records and claimed Olympic, Paralympic and world titles. Single performances, repeated success or era defining performances can all be considered when assessing who is Wales’ greatest ‘sportsman’ of all time.

While the sun will never set on that debate the next time you’re arguing the merits of various contenders, remember the words of a former Commonwealth champion and throw Jayne Ludlow, who turned her back on the glamorous world of athletics for success in the shadows with Arsenal Ladies and Wales, into the mix.

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