With England’s Lionesses arriving home this morning, we reflect on what the FIFA Women’s World Cup means for women’s sport in the UK
5.30am alarm; out the door too early for coffee shops. The Lionesses are arriving back on home soil and we want to be there to welcome them back.
90 minutes across London means ample time to look over the papers, and while they’re dominated by Greek referendum, there’s also a lot of attention on a word that will be familiar to anybody who has followed sport in the UK over the past decade: legacy. In particular what, actually, has been the legacy of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games for the UK? And what can we do to ensure that more people play sport at whatever level across the country?
Arrivals at Terminal 2 of Heathrow is busier than you might expect for 7.30am on a Monday morning in July.
There’s the usual array of joyful reunions and executives jetting in for morning meetings, of course, but the presence of 4 film crews, 5 press photographers, a couple of FA suits, 2 St George’s flags, a clutch of young excited face-painted young-children and at least one Laura Bassett shirt suggests something bigger is approaching: the return of the first ever England women’s football team to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Back when the tournament began, exactly one month ago, hopes for England were measured. Hopes for the tournament, too, through the BBC’s commitment to showing the tournament in its entirety gave cause for optimism.
One month on and the hopes of the greatest optimists have been met – and, in many cases, exceeded.
It wasn’t just the success of Mark Sampson’s England team, though undoubtedly that acted as a catalyst for increased public attention as the tournament drew on. It was the level of attention, debate and interest that caught so many up in the excitement of a World Cup and led to the sort of debates we’re so used to hearing for men’s elite sport alone: who will start in the quarter finals? What about penalties? Could we – England – possibly go all the way?
It wasn’t to be, of course. But just as Laura Bassett’s (and the whole team’s) heartbreak was sinking in for millions across the country – including the peak of 2.4m who tuned in to the BBC’s coverage, incredible for a match beginning at midnight British time – another heroine stepped up for British women’s sport, this time much closer to home.
As Friday night drew in, so the country became increasingly aware that Heather Watson – a player whose struggles with illness and injury have been common knowledge – was going to push Serena Williams, the world’s best female tennis player, all the way in the third round of Wimbledon.
In the end, Watson fell short – just. But, much as with the footballers, the country had another sportswoman to get behind, and it responded with frantic support.
That the country’s ready for more women’s sport is absolutely not in doubt. And fortunately, there’s plenty more to look forward to, not least the Women’s Ashes beginning on 21 July, with the entire series on TV and Radio courtesy of Sky Sports and the BBC.
There’s also a real sense of commitment from sports themselves to get more women and girls playing on a regular basis. The LTA’s Tennis Tuesdays, for example, or the FA’s We Can Play, both provide routes to boost the number of female participants.
Which brings us back to the question of legacy. Whether or not you think that London 2012 has had a participation legacy for women, there’s no doubt we have a chance of building a new one between now and the Rio Games next year.
It begins with more coverage of women’s sport, the likes of which the BBC and Sky have kicked on with in earnest, and takes in opportunities for women and girls to play more sport – whatever and wherever that may be.
At Women in Sport, we will continue to champion the right of every woman and girl to take part in and enjoy the benefits of sport, from the field of play to the boardroom. It’s a challenge that may take years to deliver in full, but thanks to the Lionesses, Heather Watson, the millions of fans who’ve made their voices heard for women’s sport and everybody who recognises the value inherent in getting more women and girls involved, we have solid foundations to make it happen
All images in this article have been generously provided by Getty Images