If sporting utopia existed, Clare Balding came close to realising it on 31 July. “The shots of the crowd at Wembley, it made you smile,” Balding says as she reflects on the impact of the Lionesses and, more broadly, a historic year for women’s sport. “This is what it should look like and this is how it should feel,” Balding thought, and with a career in broadcasting that has featured six Olympic and Paralympic Games and taken her closer to the action than most could dream of, those words carry particular significance. Balding has witnessed many moments that have transcended sport, but 2022 has been different.
It is one that could yet reach greater heights this month, across both rugby union and rugby league World Cups. In rugby union, the Red Roses will face hosts New Zealand in the final on Saturday, while in rugby league England will try to emulate the success of the Lionesses by winning a major tournament on home soil. As president of the RFL, it is a cause that is close to Balding’s heart but the presenter’s extensive knowledge and appreciation of a landmark year extends wider ahead of the 2022 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards, and an opportunity to celebrate and highlight what has already been accomplished.
“You open up most newspapers on a daily basis and the coverage of women’s sport is still relatively small,” Balding says. “That’s why I think events like this are important because it reminds people of what women achieved over the year.” This will be the 10th year Balding has hosted the awards and notes how the profile of women’s sport has changed across the decade through the strength of its shortlist. “So many now are household names,” she adds, and the other striking thing about the six athletes nominated was often the stage and accessibility each of their defining moments was achieved on.
Take Eilish McColgan, who took home her first major title in thrilling style by winning 10,000m gold at the Commonwealth Games, as her mother Liz McColgan watched on. “I cried with everyone else,” Balding says, and with Eve Muirhead leading Team GB to curling gold at the Winter Olympics in Beijing and Hannah Cockcroft completing her set of major medals with the Commonwealth T33/34 100m title, there is a theme of resilience throughout the shortlist and celebrations which were as cathartic as celebratory. Meanwhile, Andrea Spendolini-Sirieix, the 18-year-old diving star, had a different experience following her two gold medals and breakout performances in Birmingham but is an example of the emerging talent.
Balding is perhaps the most intrigued by the MMA fighter Molly McCann, who earned a place on the shortlist thanks to her rise in the flyweight ranks and stunning, show-stopping knockout at UFC London. For Balding, McCann is an important inclusion as an example of how women in combat sports shone in 2022, from the Liverpudlian’s explosive power to what she also represents. “I love that UFC is on the list because that is a sporting option that many girls might not think of. That has changed the perception of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be feminine, all the things that I think are important in the broader scheme of things.”
Representation was also a key part of England’s historic Euro 2022 triumph at Wembley, which will be remembered as the standout moment of a standout year. “You wanted to be in that team, you wanted to be in their gang,” Balding says. “That’s a very powerful and positive message. It encapsulates the benefits of what sport brings, friendship and mental and physcial fitness.” Beth Mead is the England star included on the shortlist, following a remarkable year that saw the Arsenal forward win the Euro 2022 Golden Boot winner and Player of the Tournament award, as well as finish second in the Ballon d’Or.
“Mead is probably one of the highest profile athletes in the country right now,” Balding adds, and in her opinion that is important too. “It shows women how much your value can be off the field. That you can earn an amazingly good living through sport.” Mead is the individual visualition of the turning point that the Lionesses were hailed for, with their victory over Germany played in front of over 87,000 and a TV audience of over 23 million signalling wider implications for women’s sport and society.
It was a role the Lionesses understood and embraced not just during the tournament, but afterwards too as the team led calls for equal opportunities in schools with their ‘Let Girls Play’ campaign. As with some of the greatest sporting moments, the Lionesses represented more than just football, but in order to demand change they first had to reach their platform. “They rose to every ocassion,” Balding says. “The clarity of thought that Sarina Wiegman has brought, it meant this team can do anything. It is a real leap and testament to the professionalism of this setup, because you don’t get to that without the preparation. This was a team that was growing in stature, not shrinking. It knew this was the moment and to seize that, that is an amazing achievement.”
England’s victory and the manner in which the Lionesses dealt with the occasion both before and afterwards reminded Balding of Team GB’s historic hockey gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I kept thinking of that and hoped they watched that,” Balding says. “That understanding of what it is that you want to create, and you are doing this for the long-term. But they didn’t shy away from that, they weren’t frightened of saying that, or of saying we are here to win this. That changes the belief of a nation and what we are capable of at the highest level.”
But do the parallels to other sports, which can also include England netball’s Commonwealth gold against Australia in 2018 and England’s Rugby World Cup triumph in 2014, make Balding in any way sceptical of hailing Euro 2022 as the game-changing moment others were perhaps quick to rush to? Women’s sport in the United Kingdom has experienced these groundbreaking moments of both individual and team success before, without necessarily having the lasting impact in partcipation numbers among girls and in schools that the Lionesses still needed to call for in 2022.
“It’s different because of the numbers who were watching,” Balding replies. “Football is the biggest sport and therefore women’s football has the greatest power to reach people and change mindsets of what it is to be feminine and what it looks like when women are working together, how it feels to celebrate success. It makes you smile with a huge warmth, and that has a crossover impact on all sports.”
Since July, England’s victory has been followed by record attendances in the Women’s Super League, while the FA have reported the tournament has “turbo-charged” their progress to increase participation in schools. It is a responsibility the team has stepped up to and handled superbly so far, but as they prepare to head into a World Cup year Balding believes it should be down to governing bodies, not athletes, to push the limits of what can be achieved.
“I hope that over the next 10 years that it’s not down to individuals anymore proving they are exceptional and therefore winning and showing what they can do,” Balding says. “It’s down to governining bodies and schools providing the opportunity for everyone to see how far you can go. In men’s sport, it’s not just outstanding performers who prove that men can do this. It’s actually a rising average, the average has to get better and then there is the springboard for excellence, and that is the next stage. It needs more participants, more activity at the grassroots level. It means greater investment as it continues to move to a professional level.”
Clare Balding is hosting the 2022 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards. Tune in to see the winners revealed on Wednesday 16th November, live on BT Sport as well as Facebook and Youtube. Find out more via btsport.com/actionwoman