Is there a dark side to firsts?

Sporting firsts are often held up and heralded as major breakthroughs. Last weekend we had a triple helping of that at both the beginning and end of The Masters and sandwiched in the middle of that the Grand National. Lee Elder who was the first Black golfer to compete in The Masters was added to the line up of honorary starters for a tournament steeped in tradition but with a history riddled with inequality. It felt fitting though that the tournament was won by Hideki Matsuyama the first Japanese golfer to triumph on Augusta’s lightning fast greens and undulating fairways. The respectful act of his caddie Shota Hayafuji replacing the flagstick on the 18th, removing his cap and bowing to the course has got people talking all over the world.

In between Hideki’s stunning performance and Lee’s understated appearance came Rachael Blackmore’s historic triumph as the first female jockey to win the Grand National on Minella Times. We also had the Boat Races with Cambridge Men and Women both victorious. But I think it is important in celebrating these moments to also acknowledge how long it has taken for progress to happen. Lee Elder was the first Black player to compete at The Masters in 1975 even though the tournament began in 1934. It wasn’t until 1977 that women were allowed to compete in horse racing and it has taken over 40 years to produce our first female champion of the jump season’s biggest race. The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race started in 1829 (Oxford won that year in case you were wondering) It was almost 100 years before the Women’s race was introduced in 1927 and not till 1935 it became a side by side race (Oxford won the first Women’s side by side race as well). It wasn’t until 2015 that the Women’s race was moved to the Thames to take place on the same day as the Men’s race and a further three years for both crews to get equal billing.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates winning with Minella Times CREDIT: PA

The purpose of today’s post is not to undermine or pick holes in these achievements. I am a big fan when we break new ground in terms of equality. My question this week is whilst we are celebrating these achievements are we sufficiently impatient in wanting more progress? Are we prepared to not be satisfied with a single triumph and continue to ask more challenging questions? When will we have a Women’s Masters tournament at Augusta? They welcomed their first two female members in 2012 but since then only four more women have been able to join. The coverage of the Boat Races is improving but it still feels more weighted toward the Men’s event. There is also clearly more work to be done in levelling the ‘riding field’ in horse racing, a topic expertly handled on this link exploring comparable performance in flat racing. This article builds on the work of Vanessa Cashmore, a Liverpool University MBA student, who published a study into the performance of female jockeys in comparison with their male counterparts from 2003 – 2016.

So let’s celebrate milestones and breakthroughs. Let’s fling kudos and admiration at those people that beat the odds to achieve career ambitions. But at the same time let’s ask questions about the progress that we are making in terms of equality of opportunity and participation.

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