London 2012: How The ‘Women’s Games’ Are Inspiring Britain’s Girls

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A young girl watches the Women's Pair Final A on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on August 1, 2012 in Windsor, England.

Eloise Taylor arrived at London’s Olympic Park on August 2 dressed for the games. With a Union Jack flag tied round her neck like a cape and a Union Jack handkerchief knotted around her chin-length hair, the seven-year-old looked like a tiny, Team GB-themed superhero. She was also feeling victorious after watching a preliminary women’s hockey match between China and the Netherlands. Despite myriad complaints over Olympic stands being marred by empty seats during events, the stands had been packed for the match that saw the 2008 silver medalists (China) take on the reigning champs (Netherlands). Even better for Eloise was the 1-0 score for the Netherlands, the team she’d been cheering on.

“They won!” she exclaimed outside the Riverbank Stadium, as she raised her fists triumphantly over her head and hopped from one foot to the other. Down from Bedfordshire, England, for the day with her parents, she could barely contain her exuberance. Already a swimmer and a tennis player, Eloise said she’s all set to add hockey to her athletic repertoire after seeing the game. “I’m playing when I’m older when I go to girls school,” she said with excited determination, holding out the edges of her flag-turned-cape.

While her enthusiasm in the wake of an Olympic match might seem predictable, it has actually become increasingly uncommon for school-age girls in Britain to show gusto for sports. According to a recent survey by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), nearly half of boys and girls polled said they felt “there are more opportunities for boys to succeed in sport than girls.” Of the girls surveyed, 43 percent said that women role models in sport were hard to come by.

Other figures show that less than one percent of commercial sponsorship goes to women’s sports, compared to the 61 percent that goes to men’s, and British media devotes only five percent of its coverage to women athletes. So it’s not hard to understand why the siren call of sport isn’t as alluring for girls as it is for boys.

Yet London 2012 might inspire a shift in attitude. With the introduction of women’s boxing, this year’s games mark the first time in history that women have competed in every event at the Olympics. What’s more, it’s the first time every participating country has sent women athletes, which has led some to dub London 2012 the “Women’s Games.”

And in Britain, in particular, women athletes have been front and center. Heptathlon star Jessica Ennis has practically been the face of London 2012, with plenty of advertising deals and media coverage. Swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Keri-Anne Payne, and cyclist Victoria Pendleton, have also received similar exposure. And once the competitions kicked off, rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover put women athletes on the map when they won Team GB’s first gold of the games.

All of which might have something to do with why the Olympics have little girls so fired up. Nine-year-old Caty Salter and her seven-year-old sister Rachel were eager to talk hockey strategy with me after the Netherlands-China game. “I was kinda cheering for China,” confessed Caty as she adjusted the strap of her pink backpack, rather than the crowd-favorite Netherlands. Bespectacled Rachel, whose excited smile revealed she’d recently lost a few baby teeth, confirmed she’d also been rooting for the Chinese team because she wanted Team GB to face weaker competition in the quarterfinals. “So it will help us win,” she explained.

When asked if they knew that London 2012 marks the first time that women have been allowed to compete in all the sports, Caty looked dubious. “No,” she answered hesitantly, like she didn’t believe it. Then again, why should she? She was still buzzed after the game and ready to talk about her own sporting career. “There’re quite a few sports I play actually,” she said, ticking them off on her fingers. “Hockey is one of them. I’ve done cross-country. I quite like football as well. And, oh yes, there’s gymnastics as well.” Will she be competing in the Olympics one day? “I hope so,” she said. For either hockey — her favorite — or perhaps gymnastics.

Then there was blonde-haired, six-year-old Sophie Lindsay, who despite being shy was dressed from head to toe in Team GB garb and had Union Jack stickers plastered all over her cheeks. Down from Bath to watch some events with her dad Trevor, she was disappointed about not being able to get tickets to her favorite event: equestrian cross-country. She’s been riding her horse, Sparky, since she was two years old and had been hoping to see Team GB, which features four women riders and only one man, compete the day before. When I asked her if she thought she’d be riding for Team GB one day instead of watching them, her dad laughed. Sophie, however, looked me straight in the eye and spoke with complete seriousness.