by Shane Thomas

2012 was a memorable year in British sport. At the forefront of that was Jessica Ennis-Hill[1], who managed to deal with the intense pressure of being billed as the face of the 2012 London Olympics, and to win gold in the heptathlon to the delight of a rapturous home crowd.

The victory cemented Ennis-Hill as the darling of British sport. Indeed, at the time I wrote on how she was the gilded girl of the nation. However, while Ennis-Hill was deservedly lionised for her achievements last year, there has been less praise for another British woman who attained global success in 2013; Christine Ohuruogu. While Ennis-Hill has carved a space in the nation’s heart, as far as mainstream consciousness goes, Ohuruogu still appears to exist in a void.

Christine Ohuruogu

In a ‘Sliding Doors’ scenario, Ohuruogu would have been the face of London 2012. She was raised in Newham, under a mile from the Olympic Stadium. The local girl, going for gold, was a ready-made narrative. However, in 2006 she was suspended for committing a doping violation, missing three out-of-competition drugs tests[2]. She missed a year of action, and her credibility took a massive hit, killing any chance of her being the frontwoman for London 2012.

But despite her not being a recognisable name beyond track and field fans, Ohuruogu is the most successful woman in the history of British athletics. Her medal haul surpasses names such as Tessa Sanderson, Denise Lewis, Sally Gunnell, Dame Kelly Holmes, and even Ennis-Hill. Her thrilling victory to win gold in the 400 metres at the World Athletics Championships was one of the most dramatic pieces of sport I’ve seen all year.

Ohuruogu is one of two women (along with Hannah Cockcroft[3]) to be nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which will take place on Sunday. However, while Ennis-Hill placed second in the award ceremony last year, it is less likely that Ohuruogu will feature among the leading contenders for the prize. And this leads into my overall point about how Ohuruogu and Ennis-Hill are a microcosm of the way women are perceived in sport – and further afield.

Jessica Ennis-Hill

Because Ennis-Hill is a perfect avatar to be a leading light for British sportswomen, and that’s not just because of her magnificent talent, and iron competitive will. Sports journalist, Simon Barnes sagaciously stated that Ennis-Hill was given the mantle of the face of the London Olympics, because she represents how we want Britain to be.

She is unlikely to be caught in any controversy, is always courteous and polite in public, and due to her mixed-race heritage, fits a more traditional – and narrow – idea of what beauty is.

Ohuruogu, on the other hand, has the missed drugs tests as part of her story, she has a more robust body type, and is a dark-skinned black woman, which shows how the seldom spoken issue of colorism is at play in all aspects of society. It’s unlikely that Ohuruogu will be seen in television adverts or on any chat shows.

While a debt is owed to the likes of Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson and Babe Didrikson Zaharias for ploughing a furrow for other sportswomen to follow, there is still an alarmingly slim alcove that a woman has to exist in if she wants to be accepted and respected in the sports world. A patriarchal paradigm that states they have to (forgive the crude choice of words) be masturbatory fodder for straight men, or face constant ridicule.

While ex-cyclist Victoria Pendleton has a line in endorsements – even in retirement – and has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, Rebecca Adlington missed out on being invited to be a contestant on the same show. Both of them are former Olympic Champions, and two of Britain’s finest sportswomen of their generation. But one is deemed “the right fit”, and the other is not.

Rebecca Adlington
Rebecca Adlington

And this is a maddeningly common occurrence. From Fatima Whitbread to Marion Bartoli to Serena Williams, the list of sportswomen who have to put up with slurs based solely on their genetics is not only misogyny in action, but it’s a daily warning klaxon to young girls, who are subsequently deterred from trying their hand at sport, because it appears to be an area where hypermasculinity trumps all.

To be clear, my earlier paragraphs aren’t trying to slight Ennis-Hill or Pendleton. They are both fully deserving of the level of fame they have attained, and this isn’t about specific individuals. It’s about one form of womanhood being seen as superior. When the patriarchal petri-dish that still infects the world of sport only allows a handful of women to share in the spoils of success, while other equally talented women are left feeding off crumbs, it isn’t just a blight on sport, but on society.

Back in the 1980’s, when Eddie Murphy’s star was on the rise, the filmmaker/actor, Robert Townsend lamented in his film, Hollywood Shuffle that Murphy’s success didn’t precipitate more black actors being given lead roles, but simply led to movie studios looking for the next Eddie Murphy.

So, while Simon Barnes may think Ennis-Hill is an ideal representative for the best of Britain, I disagree. I don’t want Ennis-Hill to be the one. I want her to be one of many. Name me some transwomen athletes without Googling. Yeah, exactly. We’ve a long way to go yet.

While I’m not about to make finite statements on what I think feminism is[4], I would hope I’m on the right track when I surmise that feminism’s purpose is to uplift all women, not just good-looking ones who win gold medals.

As the dearly departed Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world.” Lauding women such as Ohuruogu for what they can do, rather than how they look, could have progressive ripples that benefit not just women, but everyone.

We don’t need a face of women’s sport. We need hundreds.

[1] – Assuming you don’t already know, Ennis-Hill’s surname change was due to her getting married after the 2012 Olympics.

[2] – For clarity’s sake, Ohuruogu has never failed a test for performance enhancing drugs.

[3] – While diversity is still needed in this region, recognition for the likes of Cockcroft is pleasing.

[4] – I concede that this paragraph may be an abuse of my male privilege.

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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8 thoughts on ““The Wrong Kind of Athlete”

  1. While I agree with much of this article, the fact remains that part of the reason why Christine is not as prominent is that she chooses not to be. She finds family, faith and privacy more important than celebrity.

    Commercial endorsements require you to provide much more than a pound of flesh. Also the media take pleasure in building you up in order to drag you down (directly or via your family). Christine has chosen not to play that game; in the hope that they respect her privacy.

    The treatment and comments received are not just down to colour. As has been said above, we have an odd sense of standards when it comes to looks, and for that matter the way we expect female celebrities to behave and dress (or not as the case may be).


  2. I love the eloquence of the writing as much as I love the subject. Why are some hero’s more accepted? why does the mainstream struggle to embrace the diversity of women ( all people) of colour?

    Language contributes to the hegemony and we can all make an effort to call it out when we see it. Otherwise this patriarchy, and this colourism, continues.

    Thanks for writing and sharing Shane.


  3. I’ve always been stunned by how Ohourugu is overlooked. And I agree very strongly about the way some female sportswomen’s bodies are denigrated. We don’t know what healthy looks like any more, let alone what amazing feats the human body can acheive when pushed to the limit. I’m so tired of sportswomen being criticised for the way they look. Incidentally, I think Ennis-Hill was also criticised for being “big” at one point. Thanks for this. I really enjoyed your article.


  4. Great article – I remember Simon Barnes saying that Jessica Ennis-Hill represents how “we” want Britain to be, and I doubt the sports commentators have a problem with the UK looking like Sally Gunnell, so it begs the question “what about Christine Ohuruogu”?


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