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'This isn't women’s sport v men’s sport. It's about humanity and improving all of our lives'

BBC broadcaster Clare Balding is using her profile to promote gender equality in sport.

Balding was at Croke Park for the recent Liberty Insurance 'Wise Up' event.
Balding was at Croke Park for the recent Liberty Insurance 'Wise Up' event.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

CLARE BALDING REMEMBERS the exact moment she made the conscious decision to become a champion of women’s sport.

As one of Britain’s leading broadcasters and a regular presenter on the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, she was utterly dismayed when not one female athlete made the 10-strong list of nominations for the award in 2011.

“I knew that wasn’t because women hadn’t achieved great things that year, it was just that they hadn’t got the recognition for it and they hadn’t got the media profile,” Balding recalls.

“I made quite a fuss at the time and I was very vocal about it. I then realised that I don’t just have a job that I love where I get to go to great events and am very passionate about what I do in trying to do it well. There is also a responsibility that comes with that, which is to do what I can to support women’s sport.

“I made a pledge then, which I have continued through and made some pretty big decisions to get behind campaigns that I think can make a difference.”

One such cause she feels passionate about is Liberty Insurance’s ‘Wise Up’ study, which was launched at an event at Croke Park last week with Balding, Olympic silver medallist Sonia O’Sullivan and a number of the country’s top female athletes all in attendance.

The research revealed that 55% of Irish women describe themselves as ‘active’ compared to 45% of their male counterparts. Organisers also called on parents and family members to make a pledge to bring their daughters, sisters, nieces, and granddaughters to a women’s sporting fixture this year using the Twitter hashtag #SupportHerSport.

“What sport allows you to do is to be judged on whether you’re any good or not,” says Balding, who spoke on stage with Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business on the day. “It’s on what your body can do, not what it looks like, and frankly if you are a size zero and you want to play sport, you probably need to bulk up a bit!

“I don’t think that’s a bad message to get out there – That being a little larger and having strong thighs is not a negative thing. But I grew up in a world where it was absolutely something that I should be embarrassed about.”

Rob Hartnett, Clare Balding, Sonia O'Sullivan, Ryle Nugent and Robin McGhee Balding with CEO Sport for Business, Rob Hartnett, Sonia O'Sullivan, RTÉ Head of Sport Ryle Nugent and Robin McGhee of Millward Brown at Croke Park. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As the daughter of racehorse trainer Ian Balding, sport was always in Clare’s blood and she was a successful amateur jockey before moving into journalism. However, she admits that he didn’t approve of her career choices — initially, at least.

My father was extremely sexist and I have told him that since,” she says.” He had very low expectations for me.”

Balding has gone on to become highly-regarded in her field as the face of some of the top televised sporting occasions in this part of the world such as the Olympic Games, Cheltenham Festival and Wimbledon, which she will take over from John Inverdale as anchor its nightly highlights show this year.

“I recognise the fight that an awful lot of people have had to go through for the benefit of today,” she adds. “That’s true in politics with women wanting to get the vote and I think it’s true in every walk of life. You have to recognise how much of a struggle it has been. We are really lucky as we are right here when it is changing.

“How lucky am I to come into sports broadcasting when there were suddenly opportunities for women?! Just in my working time, in 20 years, the difference from being one of only three women working on racing with Tracey Piggott and Lesley Graham (to now).

“I came along as a not terribly good, but quite gobby, 20-something year-old. Tracey goes back to Ireland, I get the chance to do her job and within three years I’m presenting it with Willie Carson.

“Now there are 10-12 really strong, female racing broadcasters. They are fabulously confident because they know there is no limit or barriers. And the same is true in general sport.

“I still think there is work to be done in terms of commentary, but when I started in BBC Radio 5 Live there was only me and Eleanor Oldroyd. Now you would be surprised if you didn’t hear a woman once or twice during the day reading sports bulletins.

“So it has changed rapidly and that’s why I know it can change rapidly.”

Clare Balding interview The broadcaster is well-known from Channel 4's horse racing coverage. Source: Nick Potts

As far as coverage of women’s sport is concerned, Balding accepts that it is still lagging way behind men’s but points to the the Women’s World Cup, currently on in Canada, as evidence that things are improving.

SSE has been announced as the new official sponsor of the Women’s FA Cup in the past week and she also feels that there are huge opportunities for businesses to get on board as partners of women’s teams, competitions and sports for much more affordable prices than men’s right now. That may not necessarily be the case in five years’ time, however.

One thing Balding is at pains to stress is that the ultimate goal isn’t to compete with men’s sport, but simply to create a level playing field where both can thrive.

“I’ve never felt that this is about men v women or women v men, or women’s sport v men’s sport. It’s about humanity and improving all of our lives by not limiting ourselves to being expected to do certain things because of our agenda.

It is such a visual, powerful image of women allowed to be strong, confident, ambitious and competitive and those not being seen as bad things.”

In April, Balding married her partner of 14 years, former BBC newsreader Alice Arnold. And, after a landslide victory same-sex marriage in this country, she believes Ireland can show others the way forward when it comes this too.

“I was watching and it was very emotional. Ireland has proved that society’s attitudes can change for the better and it can also be a leading light in terms of women’s sport.”

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Ben Blake

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