Christmas gift idea: 50 women in sport

A women kicking a football in a darkened stadium.

At this time of year, it can be hard to motivate yourself. I don’t want to tie my laces and leave the house for a run. I love reading motivational books to encourage me to keep going. One book which I’ve read recently that I would recommend adding to your Christmas wish list is 50 Women in Sport by Jean Williams and Gemma Lumsdaine (edited by Cheryl Robson).

What I enjoyed about 50 Women in Sport is that it doesn’t cover the fifty most famous women in sport. It doesn’t recount well-known tales of Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova or Kathrine Switzer. Instead, it focuses on people who have achieved greatness in more obscure sports or from countries where women are not typically encouraged to participate in sports.

Cover of 50 women in sport, showing Junko Tabei climbing a mountain, Serena Williams, Mithali Raj playing cricket, Fu Yuanhui in a swimming pool, Nicola Adams and Megan Rapinoe playing football.

Sections in the book

The book starts with three short sections covering early sports pioneers; women in sport: post-war to today; and great Paralympians. I was really pleased to see that Paralympians are given equal billing in this text. Too often huge achievements by athletes with disabilities are overlooked. (Likewise, the book tells the stories of women whose religion and culture might exclude them from taking part in sports).

I loved reading about the 1948 Olympics in the post-war section. I was so fascinated by some of the facts that I ended up getting distracted and Googling several related topics that I will explore more in future. (Did you know that the Olympics has included literature, art, music and other cultural categories?)

The central section of the book profiles 25 pioneers and legends from a wide range of sports. These included gymnastics, tennis, ice dancing, athletics, sailing, tennis, football, rugby, and cycling. What is fascinating is that many of the women tell of how they started out in several sports, achieving a high level in them all, before narrowing down to one sport where they achieved at an international level. Two of the stories that I really enjoyed reading in this section were those of Natalia Molchanova and Junko Tabei. I had not heard of Molchanova, a free diver, and Junko Tabei, a mountaineer, before. Free diving is a fascinating sport as it’s so dangerous as well as requiring extreme mental and physical skills. Molchanova achieved success after the age of 40, which is when many sportspeople are retiring. Meanwhile, Tabei was the first woman to climb Everest.

Both sides of a 1948 London Olympics medal.

Interviews with women in sport

The last section of the book contains interviews with 25 women in sport. Before each interview, there is a brief profile of the sportswoman before moving into the interview. The questions were excellently written, giving the women a chance to discuss many aspects of their careers. I think the question that I was most interested in is ‘What would you like to see change for women in sport?’ Answers ranged from issues around funding, media coverage, the inclusion of people from different backgrounds and having more women in senior roles.

One interview that I was really interested in was with Julie Kitchen a former kickboxing and Muay Thai world champion. Kitchen is around the same age as me and was brought up in west Cornwall. Her success was regularly covered in local newspapers, so I remember reading about her. Another interview that I think helped to balance the book was with Jawahir Roble, a hijab-wearing British football referee. It is too easy to only think about the women playing sport rather than the referees, coaches, journalists and support staff.

Throughout the book, full-colour images of a range of athletes are interspersed. (Obviously, there are also some black-and-white photos from the earliest female sports pioneers). The photos capture the triumphs, joy, determination, anguish and pain of sportspeople. In the interviews, several of the women in sport comment on the inappropriate questions that journalists have asked them (but that men would never have been asked). Of course, those trivial questions are not asked in this book. We do not ponder how athletes chose their outfits or whether it’s right to continue with their careers if they have children.

Anything else?

If I have any criticisms of this book, it would be that it only tells the story of 50 women in sport in any depth. Many other names have been mentioned and have piqued my interest. I think this could easily be extended to 250 women in sport.

Overall, I think this book would be a great gift for any person who is interested in sports or as a present for a teenager who needs to be inspired to continue playing/training.

I'd love to hear your thoughts...

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