The Summer of Sport is teaching lessons for life - are we learning?

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It’s been quite the summer of sport globally so far. It’s also been a summer affected by rain, heat, wind or storm. Right now the world is looking on as women compete in far off places. Through their sportsing prowess, what could we - should we - learn from the perspective of female sport?

The Olympics are still some months away and the Commonwealth Games are in dire straits over whether they will run at all, but 2023 is certainly shaping up to be the summer of women’s sport as, perhaps never before. On the back of the euphoria surrounding England’s triumph at the UEFA Women’s Euros last year, Dutch former footballer and manager of the Lionesses Sarina Wiegman is proving once again that her squad is one of the world’s best and more than worthy of its position at the top table of the beautiful game. As I write this the team has just seen off China to record the perfect start to its chase for the sport’s top trophy – unbeaten in the group games and straight through to the last sixteen knock-out stages. Nobody will take anything for granted and just as was the case with the Euros there will be jeopardy to negotiate, but it’s a powerfully positive start.

If football is offering a global profile to women’s sport, the Netball World Cup in South Africa is doing exactly the same. The sport isn’t exclusively played by women – something that I learned while researching this week’s column. Indeed, in Australia mixed teams are popular. I will confess that until I met Lois I knew next to nothing about the sport, such had been the way that it had been almost hidden away from me as a ‘a sport played by the girls’ that shouldn’t be taking any notice of. Lois played a lot of netball and I quickly noticed that she had the same kind of passion for it that I have for motorsport – a sport still hugely dominated by the male of the species. I’ll return to that particular tangent a bit later.

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We went to the World Cup in 2019 when it was played in Liverpool. We stayed for the weekend in one of a number of the hotels overlooking the M&S Arena on the banks of the Mersey. Coincidentally, all the teams were housed there too. I was amazed. I’d never seen a sport quite so rule driven, fast moving, skilful in three dimensions and yet supported almost exclusively by women with apparently no mainstream media support. The atmosphere of the event was massively competitive, hugely tribal and yet friendly to a fault. Right now, England’s Roses are also heading for the final playoffs, albeit that they’ll have to see off either Australia or New Zealand if they want to become global champions. As with all sport, success seems to come at the margins of the game. In F1 half a second between lap times is seen as a yawning chasm of time – reaction times in netball are equally crucial and in my tutelage of the game I’m sure Lois found herself labouring to teach me enough for me to engage with what was going on before my eyes. She needn’t have worried – after Liverpool I made sure we had tickets to see the netball at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and this week it’s been me scouring the schedules to watch the games – and not only the Roses-played encounters. We’ve even stopped bingeing on Grays Anatomy and Who Do You Think You Are? for heaven’s sake.

The Lionesses in action at the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool The Lionesses in action at the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool
The Lionesses in action at the 2019 Netball World Cup in Liverpool

But, as ever, I digress. At the start of this column, I asked what lessons we are learning – or should learn - from women’s sport. The first lesson has be that women’s sport is in no way a second class or inferior version of the same sport played by men. There are those who have criticised almost all female versions of sports in such terms – be that football, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis or aquatics. That, is nonsense, plain and simple. The skills demand of sport played by women and men at the highest level is the same for both – segregation allows those skills to emerge and be rightly celebrated alongside achievement. I appreciate that there is a heated debate going on currently over gender fluidity and the journey from whence athletes come to compete in their chosen sphere. If I may, and only for the reason of the limitation of space I have in this column, I will bypass the debate rather than comment on something which rightly deserves more time AND space.

I’m sure we could learn a great deal about sporting behaviour from women – and not only on the field of play. I’ve been impressed by the way in which at the end of a netball game at the world cup, both sides come together, mixed player to player in order to congratulate their opponents, commiserate and offer kind words. Wallpapering for the cameras it could certainly be seen as – were it not for the fact that it happens when the cameras aren’t there too. What’s more, those behaviours don’t have to be confined to sport. Time after time I’ve heard coaches talking about their chosen sports as being great places to develop life skills in younger people. True though that might be, I’m equally sure that it’s not just the young that could learn a thing or two about sporting behaviour of the positive kind - there are plenty of older people that could take a lesson in better behaviour and attitude.

And then there’s the positive tribalism that comes from women’s sport. Listen to the crowds chanting for Uganda or the singing in support of Tonga right now – there are masterclasses in inclusion being handed out there. In my own sport there’s about to be change and rightly so. The Formula 1 Academy will shortly see female drivers publicly recognised and formally supported by all the teams in a feeder category running alongside the premier series. As a global sport it is judged by more than what goes on, on the track. It must lead as such too.

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‘Play the game’ they say. Indeed - play the game, play fairly, and play up for the good of sport itself. The ladies are setting some brilliant examples right now – we should note them and not only for sport.