'If you can't see it you can't be it': An interview with women’s sports journalist, Jen Offord
Ahead of the World Cup, we talked to sports blogger extraordinaire Jen Offord, who gave us some insight into the world of women’s sports. Jen’s sports blog, Inspireajen, which she launched during the 2012 Olympics, has received international press coverage and she is co-host of the Standard Issue podcast. Jen discusses her passion for sports and fitness, trying out every Olympic discipline and cycling across America on a bicycle called Beyoncé.
When did you first gain an interest in sport and what made you decide to become a sports writer?
As the youngest of three children and the only girl, I was subjected to a lot of football in my early years, but other than a passing interest in the woes of Charlton Athletic, I had little interest in sport until the 2012 Olympics. It was a really special time to be in London and I found myself so inspired by the athletes and the spirit around the games that I decided to take on this challenge of trying all the Olympic Disciplines and writing a blog about it. The blog did quite well and when it was over I didn't want to leave this new world I'd discovered behind, so I decided to leave my job in the Civil Service and give writing a go as a job.
Through your writing and podcasting with Standard Issue, you've shed a wealth of light on the world of women's sports, a topic that takes up just 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK. What have been your highlights and what is your view on the current state of coverage of women's sports in the UK media?
The Olympics are an obvious choice, not just because of my own interest in them, but because it's one of the rare events where women's sport gets the same platform as men's sport. It also gives you an opportunity to watch a really diverse range of sports including sports which I think are chronically under-funded at an elite level in the UK, like basketball and handball, which wouldn't ordinarily get much coverage here. It's great to think that a young girl might be inspired by a professional basketball player from the WNBA, for example, and go out and give it a go. I also think that Channel 4's coverage of the Women's Euros last year was fantastic and really proved the market for women's sports really does exist.
The current state of coverage of women's sport in the UK is dire. 7% just isn't enough, and it's so important to have that coverage in order to inspire more girls to play, widening the talent pool and developing the elite side of women's sport. But at grassroots level, it's also hugely important. If you can't see it you can't be it, and the absence of any women at all from the recent Forbes Sports rich list proves that women are still not being welcomed into this world by the industry. This isn't about "we got the vote now we want to go mountain biking" it's about inspiring young people not just to pursue careers in sport but to improve their health by being active and the latter point makes this an issue that to my mind, politicians and policymakers should be far more interested in.
It's great to see the way Sky Sports and the BBC, for example, have upped their game in terms of women's sport coverage, but the industry now has to find a way to make it relevant and appealing to women to make them feel like this is a world they belong in, as well as men.
Your blog,' Inspireajen', which covered your attempts of each of the 38 Olympic disciplines that women compete in, was a brilliant insight into the world of Olympic sports from a perspective that is often overlooked- that of a newcomer. What did you learn from your experience?
I learnt that you don't have to be good at something to enjoy it, that as awkward as we might feel taking those first steps in sport, no one is looking at us and laughing - they're far too bothered about feeling awkward themselves - and that sport really does provide the only socially acceptable way to throw yourself face-first at a crash mat in adult life, something I feel we could all do with more of!
What was your favourite sport that you covered?
I loved boxing, it made me feel so empowered and seeing myself become stronger and punch harder has been something I'm really proud of. I've kept it up and six years later I'm still boxing!
What was the most challenging sport that you tried?
Water Polo. It made me physically do a sick in my mouth.
After your Olympics project, you cycled solo across America, from Harwich Massachusetts to Houston, Texas, what inspired you take on such a long and challenging journey?
Cycling is another sport I really got into over the course of the Olympics challenge and after I left the Civil Service I wanted a new project to focus on. The Olympics challenge and other things had made me realise how sidelined and overlooked women are in a lot of industries, and I also worry about the narrow representations of women the media shows young girls. So I planned to cycle across the US from Harwich Massachussetts - because I'm from Harwich in Essex - to Houston in Texas - the hometown of Beyonce Knowles - on my bike by the same name - Beyonce - interviewing women working in male-dominated areas in order to show some broader, more positive representations of women.
Who is an inspirational figure for you in the world of women's sports?
I love Nicola Adams, but also a woman I met during my Olympics challenge, Kate Allenby who won a medal for GB in the Modern Pentathlon at the Sydney Games. She believes that sport changes lives and she showed me enormous generosity purely because of that belief. She's a teacher now and it's really heartening to know that young girls are learning from the likes of her.
What can we do to increase support and coverage of the FIFA Women's World Cup, the FA Women's Super League and women in sports in general?
At an individual level - show there's a market for it. Broadcasters will show women's sport, brands will sponsor it if there's money to be made, so if you're interested watch it. As a society we need to broaden our view of women, we need to acknowledge that women don't fit in the narrow boxes assigned to them by the media - which is a reason I'm so proud of working for Standard Issue. On the editorial side, I'm really the only member of the team with any strong interest in sport, but it was universally agreed among us that it was important to give women's sports coverage in the name of gender equality.