Have you ever asked yourself the purpose behind sport, and why it is such an important part of life and society? Off the cuff, you might say that participating in sport is a good way to keep fit, and following professional leagues and events is an enjoyable leisure pursuit. But there is so much more to it than that.
Succeeding in sport, whether it is at international level or your local club, is about pitching yourself against adversity and pushing yourself, both mentally and physically, to levels that you never thought possible. When you think of it in that way, it is hardly surprising that as youngsters, our biggest heroes and inspirations are often sports stars. With the passing years, the hero-worship might evaporate, but the admiration for what those at the top of their game can achieve, and the inspiration it can provide, only gets stronger.
Fighting the gender gap
Of course, inspirational and influential sports stars come in both sexes. Yet as is so often the case in various walks of life, women face an additional challenge in that they often have to work twice as hard to gain half the rewards of their male counterparts.
That might sound melodramatic, given that women’s sport provides exactly the same entertainment value, merchandising opportunities, sports betting possibilities and so on. Yet when you compare male and female sports earnings, the results are downright shocking. In sports like soccer, martial arts and basketball, the top male players enjoy ten times the earning power of their female counterparts, and even in tennis, a sport where the women’s game enjoys higher viewing figures and greater sports betting revenue, the top male player earns almost 40 percent more than the top female.
The financial considerations are only part of the equation, however. In the few sports where men and women play on equal footing, for example horseracing, pool or motor racing, the gender divide is plain for all to see, and it is evident that just being good enough is not always sufficient to reach the top echelons. All these factors and more have been taken into consideration in assembling this roundup of truly inspirational sports women.
Has such natural talent ever been seen in any sport that can compare with the tennis powerhouse that is Serena Williams? Her path to the top of women’s tennis has been a true battle against the odds. We all know that racial background should have no more influence on sporting success than sex. Yet sports have long memories of bygone eras and attitudes. To this day, some sports are more inclusive than others, and perhaps as a hangover from its elitist history, there are far fewer African American tennis pros than there are, for example, footballers or basketball players.
Serena has done more to change that than anyone, and today, when you look down the list of tennis pros, there is far more diversity in terms of ethnic background than there was back in 1995 when she played her first professional match. With 23 grand slam singles tournament wins to her name and counting, Serena will go down in history as one of the all time greats. Despite her success and her aggressive style of play, she remains as likeable and humble off-court as she was 24 years ago.
Get within a mile of a motor racing circuit and you can smell the testosterone even more strongly than the exhaust fumes. Boys love their cars, but ask any auto insurance provider and you will be told that girls are the more accomplished drivers.
Of course, driving well and driving fast are not necessarily the same thing, but Danica Patrick proved to a cynical motor racing world that she could do both. Having made her way up through the junior formulae, she was given her first chance at the big time in 2005 at the age of 23. Suggestions that her inclusion was nothing more than a publicity stunt soon evaporated, as she consistently accumulated top-10 finishes and ended the season crowned Rookie of the Year.
By the time she retired last year, she was undisputedly the most successful woman in the history of motor sport. In fact, ESPN went so far as to describe Danica as the woman who made it possible for girls to believe.
Here’s another athlete who has taken on the men and consistently come out on top. She is the most successful ski racer of either sex in US history and has represented her country in four Olympic Games. This is despite missing the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, after a freak training accident caused an old injury to flare up.
Her success goes without saying, and her name is invariably mentioned whenever experts discuss the best skiers in history. But that is only half the story. The true inspiration lies in the way she came back from injury stronger than ever to compete in the 2018 Olympics, and the maturity with which she has weathered media attention over her personal life.
As we saw in the case of Danica Patrick, it is often the task of female athletes to break age-old stereotypes. Ronda Rousey has spent her career going a step further than that, by smashing them to pieces.
Anyone laboring under the misapprehension that MMA – and women’s MMA in particular – is all theatre needs only to witness a few seconds of Rousey in action to be put right. Her resume reads is a list of firsts – first UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, first American to win an Olympic Gold in judo, she even holds the record for the fastest victory in UFC history, when she defeated Cat Zingano at UFC 184 in a bout that lasted just 14 seconds.
At 32, Ronda knows there is still time to add more firsts to her career, and there is one thing she wants above all else. She is desperate to prove herself against male opposition, but to date, that has been something a step too far for the UFC. Will she get her way before retirement? If history has taught us one thing it is that when you bet against Ronda, you’re likely to lose, so let’s just say anything is possible.