Dame Sarah Storey believes the coronavirus crisis has provided sport with an unprecedented opportunity to build “a more equal world” for men and women provided sports administrators are prepared to think “outside the box”.
With the Premier League set to resume behind closed doors on Wednesday — thanks in part to the vast sums of money being spent on testing — there are fears of a ‘gender lockdown gap’, with much of the progress of the last decade potentially being undone as women’s sport is abandoned by cash-strapped governing bodies and sponsors.
Storey, the 14-time Paralympic champion, says she prefers to think of the current situation as an “opportunity to reset the whole landscape” as it has in other walks of life.
“I want to look on the bright side because that’s what I’m doing with the other part of my life, with active travel, trying to make positive suggestions and getting the powers-that-be to run with them,” Storey, who is as Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region, told Telegraph Sport.
“We’ve done a lot of thinking outside the box in terms of active transport and how to boost cycling while public transport is massively reduced. And it’s having that type of ‘growth mindset’ with other things.”
Storey, a former season ticket holder at Manchester United, cited the example of football, saying the crisis provided an opportunity to bring the men’s and women’s sport closer together.
“At the moment we have football clubs in the lower leagues who are really struggling, and they may or may not survive. But the clubs that are going to survive will have women’s teams as well. So maybe this is the opportunity to build women’s teams into all football clubs?” she said.
“Why not go further. It might be pie in the sky but what if the leagues were based on combined men’s and women’s results? What if there were men’s and women’s games on match days? So the crowd got to watch two matches instead of just one? How good would the Manchester derby be if it was two games rather than one?
“I think we’re at a fork in the road. We could go down the route whereby we back men’s sport because we think ‘it costs more therefore it must be more important; it’s had more money in the past therefore it must be worth saving first’.
“Well actually, you could go down another route where you think about how you could save both sides of the sport. I think by taking a more holistic approach and looking more broadly you give more opportunity to the whole spectrum.”
Storey asked why the question was not already being asked of international federations and governing bodies.
“Is it worth asking the FA whether it’s something they would consider as a strategy? It’s a top-down approach. But the impact on the younger generation from such a way of thinking could be huge.
“When you go to your local football club, would they be more likely to have a completely balanced squad at U10s level because of what they’re seeing at Manchester United and Manchester City level?
“If you’re a twin boy and girl, for instance, you could well go and play for the same football club, on the same day, in the future. At the moment your paths look very different.
“We have that in tennis. You go to Wimbledon and you can watch a men’s game and a women’s game within metres of each other. In athletics they already compete in the same stadium on the same day. How can we bring that gender gap closer together in team sports?
“Cricket might be another option. You couldn’t play Test matches on the same ground on the same day, but you could certainly find a way of combining the shorter formats of the game. Rugby too. Every industry is adapting to a new normal. Why not sport?”
Storey, 42, will compete in the V-Women’s Tour, a three-day online race which has replaced the cancelled Women’s Tour, with highlights set to be shown on the BBC. She described such exposure as “brilliant” but acknowledged that her sport was in the same boat as others, with the women’s side unsure how the crisis would ultimately affect it.
“Ultimately it depends on the UCI [cycling’s world governing body],” she said. “This season and next season are going to be disrupted. But do they want to build it back more equally? Or are they absolutely focused on making sure the men get back to 100 per cent as they were before, and nothing else matters?
“I believe we could use the horrific situation with Covid to change sport for the better and bridge a gap we’d hoped to bridge in the last 30 years.
“We’ve not made as much headway as I would have expected. If you’d said to me as a 14 year old [at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona] ‘Where would you expect women’s sport to be in 2020?’ I would have probably imagined a much more equal world.”