This is the fifth in a multi-part series on women in sport. Chapter 1 explored the early days of the Olympic movement, Chapter 2 grapples with the struggles of sexual identity, Chapter 3 looks at the influence of the media on gender views and Chapter 4 Part 1 and Part 2 discusses the sexualisation of women’s sport and Chapter 5 unpacks the unique obstacles facing female athletes in India.
Chapter 6: Women in parasports
Gemma Stevenson is a journalist who covers many disabled sports, specialising mainly in tennis. She was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome [EDS] in 2013 and she also has Dystonia. EDS affects the body’s connective tissues which can lead to “joint hypermobility, skin hyperextensibility, and tissue fragility”, while Dystonia leads to “uncontrollable and sometimes painful muscle spasms caused by incorrect signals from the brain”. Gemma is the ambassador for Dystonia UK.
However, this has not stopped Gemma from playing wheelchair tennis and competing for England’s ParaCheer team. In this interview, Gemma passionately discusses women’s role models in parasports, as well as the inequalities in coverage between men and women. She also tackles the issue of the lack of female sports journalists in the industry.
Is there a difference in female and male coverage in wheelchair tennis?
“I think to reality check it, the coverage is not perfect for anybody. Inequalities do exist in parasports, but they are less pronounced because the general reporting of parasport is just practically nonexistent anyway.
“It’s nice that Jordanne Whiley has come back to international touring duty after having a baby, and it’s been nice to see such a focus on how she’s doing.
“She’s become the headline over the last couple of weeks, which is great to see for a female athlete full-stop, whether they are a para or an able bodied.”
Jordanne Whiley, 26, is a UK British wheelchair tennis champion. She has won every grand slam in doubles, including a clean sweep of titles in 2014, and was US Open singles champion in 2015.
Are male parasport athletes more popular than women parasport athletes? Who are some female role models in parasports?
“I remember a time when I mentioned parasports to people and the only ones they could name were Oscar Pistorius and Tanni Grey-Thompson. People know men’s names more in parasports. But, there are loads of female role models.”
Tanni Grey-Thompson has won 16 Paralympic medals (11 golds) in athletics.
“Hannah Cockroft is a track and field star. She does amazing things, such as raising the profile of parasports. Cockroft has developed a real juicy rivalry with Kare Adenegan in wheelchair racing, which is just great to see.”
Hannah Cockroft has won five Paralympic gold medals. Kare Adenegan has one silver and two bronze Paralympic medals.
“Similarly, the women’s game has some great rivalries in paratennis, but there are not mediatized enough. Outside of the UK, Kgothatso Montjane is an incredible role model in South Africa. She became the first black South African woman to compete at all four grand slams in 2018, which is a fantastic achievement.
“In wheelchair tennis, Esther Vergeer is a legend within the sport. She’s retired now, but when I was first getting into tennis and wheelchair tennis, nobody could beat her. She went ten years unbeaten or something ridiculous like that, it’s an insane achievement.”
Esther Vergeer has won seven Paralympic gold medals, 48 combined doubles and singles grand slam titles. She finished her career on a 470-match winning streak.
“Diede de Groot in Holland, Yui Kamiji in Japan, Jordanne Whiley and Lucy Shuker in the UK are other examples of female role models in parasports.
“Lucy Shuker is an incredible athlete. She’s in the top ten despite being one of the most disabled players on tour. She is winning matches and keeping herself in that top ten. In my opinion, she does not get the media attention she deserves.
“Lucy Shuker is a great role model for me. I was able-bodied for a long time, but when I got into a wheelchair, the first person I saw play wheelchair tennis was Shuker. Watching her and seeing what she could achieve as somebody who has a high level of disability, like myself, made me realize that I could give it a go and it was not out of my reach.
“I mean, look at her doubles results, she’s a phenomenal doubles player. Before she was put in a wheelchair, she was a badminton player, and literally everybody wants to partner her in doubles because she’s so pin-point accurate and just beautiful to watch at the net, because she can just do those little flicks.”
Lucy Shuker won two bronze medals in Women’s doubles, at the Paralympics. Once in 2012 and once in 2016, with Jordanne Whiley as her doubles partner.
Are there many female disabled sports journalists?
“There are very few women in sports journalism now. When I was a student at St Mary’s, there were only three women on the sports journalism course.
“I read a story the other day where there is one girl who’s on an MA sports journalism course at another university and she’s the only female sports journalist there. That is amongst able bodied women, as well as disabled women. Most of the disabled people in sports who I work with are male.
“In terms of female journalists with disabilities, there are the likes of myself, Kate Grey and Nikki Fox who are becoming more visible, so hopefully, touch wood that will feed through, but there are visibly fewer female than there are males.
“I hope it changes. That’s one of the reasons I became a journalist, because not only do I have a disability, but I am a female and it was because I did not see people who looked like me on TV.
“That also was fuelled by not just the being disabled thing, it was fuelled by the fact that I actually can’t see many women in the industry.”
Featured photograph/Maria Lopes