Alan Hubbard

Having taken the knee - actually it was both knees - in a rather nasty fall and ended up flat on my back in hospital these past couple of weeks, I have had time to reflect on and reassess certain aspects of this sporting life.

This enforced indisposition is why you have been spared my pearls of wisdom of late. But I feel compelled, even from this prone position, to put finger to keyboard again now that sport seems to have gone off its rocker.

These past few weeks sport really has plunged the depths of toxicity and sleaze, spreading scandal not only across the back pages, but the front too and also frequently leading the TV and radio news bulletins for the wrong reasons.

The fiasco that was the announcement of the European Super League descended into farce, provoking first reaction and then action from the Football Association, then the Prime Minister and finally condemnation from Prince William.

The pong may be over but the malady lingers on.

"Anarchy at Old Trafford" was one newspaper headline after fans protests turned into clashes with police, forcing the postponement of Manchester United's match against Liverpool. We have also suffered a regular diet of drugs revelations and the ongoing inquiries into sexual and physical abuse to youngsters in football and gymnastics and the unsavoury fact that sport now has a pandemic of its own with the escalating evidence of how dementia is claiming the lifestyles and ultimately the lives of so many who have played contact games for a living.

So much wrongdoing, mismanagement and ill judgement among sport's top brass has been swept under the carpet that not even James Dyson's high-tech finest could extricate it.

The fallout from the breakaway European Super League proposals continues ©Getty Images
The fallout from the breakaway European Super League proposals continues ©Getty Images

But there is an upside. A piercing light beams through a curtain of gloom and doom which now enshrouds so much of sport. The wonderful female jockey, Rachael Blackmore, has shoved her riding boots right through the glass ceiling with her victory, the first woman jockey to win the renowned, but sometimes reviled, Grand National. In doing so she showed that this area of equestrianism has become where women can be as good as and sometimes better than their male counterparts.

Not since Lady Godiva stripped naked to ride bareback - quite literally - through the streets of Coventry has there been such frenzy surrounding a woman on a horse.

Blackmore's achievement was further indication that women’s sport is on the march in 2021. I have had quite a lot of time to shuffle through the TV channels and it has become quite clear just how much improvement there is in the standards of women’s football, rugby, cricket and tennis. Both in terms of skill and spectacle. Boxing too.

The noble art is not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey and I know of many fight aficionados who simply refuse to watch it and I cannot say I am enamoured myself of watching a couple of ladies punch each other on the nose. But I have always championed their right to do so if they wish.

So often both at amateur and professional level - and even with one or two exceptions in the Olympics - it is like handbags at 10 paces or a bunfight at the OK Corral. The problem has been a lack of depth but gradually this seems to be, in style, technique and even punching power, very much on the up.

And I have to say that watching last weekend’s world title fight between the Irish icon Katie Taylor and Natasha Jonas, a Scouse scrapper who would grace any catwalk, was quite uplifting. As good as many men’s title fights I have seen in recent years. So boxing boots, like riding boots and football boots have been shoved further through that glass ceiling, but there is still a long way to go baby, as Billie Jean King would say, before it is shattered completely.

Katie Taylor, an Olympic gold medallist at London 2012, remains unbeaten in the professional ranks ©Getty Images
Katie Taylor, an Olympic gold medallist at London 2012, remains unbeaten in the professional ranks ©Getty Images

Yet there are signs that the influence of women in sport is increasing by the day, albeit slowly but surely.

In the United Kingdom we have seen the first female referee in league football and female assistant referees seem in good supply to run the line. These days, as my colleague Mike Rowbottom pointed out last week, the number of female administrators and officials globally is on the increase and for only the second time - following the indomitable Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki of Athens - a woman will be in charge of running another Olympics this year when Tokyo finally has its day in the rising sun.

This is the situation which has come about because of a silly, but nonetheless objectionable, slice of male chauvinism. However, no one will envy the task of Seiko Hashimoto in stage managing an event with so many ifs, buts and inhibitions and prohibitions surrounding it.

While we can’t say that more women are watching sport - because of the absence of crowds - there seem to be even more female sports presenters and newscasters than men, notably on the UK's Sky Sports, of course, where they do like a woman’s touch.

Most core sports also have female pundits, once predominantly male territory. Some may be a bit iffy, the objects of tokenism, but the majority are fluent, knowledgeable and very professional. 

One final thought. Yet again a horse died in the Grand National. Tragically, so did a 19-year-old boxer from Jordan in the World Youth Championships. As always sport is a matter of life - and sadly, death.