We are told that the London Olympics has provided girls with some great female role models. And it has. Yet this stance does more than state a fact; it invites an uncomfortable question.
Can these female athletes not be great role models for boys too?
The framing of recent Olympic success suggests that it would be unthinkable for this to be the case.
Whilst clearly, at times, girls need strong female role models, and boys need strong male role models – and, doubtless, the Olympics has provided these – by channelling the ‘news’ story in this direction, it undermines the fact that inspiration can come from either sex.
In as much as it fixes in the minds of little girls that they should look up to women, it confirms in the minds of little boys that their role models should be men.
Why not ‘look at these successful male and female athletes, boys and girls, and how they can be role models’. After all, in the fictional world of Equaltopia, long-jumping Lolly has Greg Rutherford posters all over her walls, whilst heptathlon Henry looks up to Jessica Ennis.
In the world of sport in particular, it is the level of the athlete’s ability, not the colour of his or her skin or the flavour of his or her reproductive organs that should provide motivation to succeed.
By highlighting the success of the female athletes and channelling that as aspirational to girls alone, it is suggestive of this being an unexpected outcome, or worse, one that has occurred in spite of something else (i.e. sex): ‘look, these female athletes are successful and are women, who would have thought that? Now girls, you can be like them too.’
Maybe – hopefully – at London 2048, the newspaper headlines will read, ‘British athletes top medal table: role models for the next generation’. At the same time, running Rebecca who has just won the 10 000m talks of being inspired by old footage of Mo Farah, whilst boxing Bill talks fondly of Nicola Adams after his flyweight success.