The first-ever women’s Ballon d’Or, the highest individual award in international football, was supposed to be a historic moment. It was, as Norway’s Ada Hegerberg became the first woman to win the French Football magazine’s golden ball for her prolific season.
However, the watershed moment was also clouded by sexism that is ever prevalent in the sports world. Except this time, it was promptly and widely called out, with sportspersons and fans alike pointing out the gender disparity.
But first things first, Hegerberg is a star in her own right. The 23-year-old was Lyon’s top scorer with 15 goals in the Champion’s League – including one in the final in Kiev in May.
Lyon also won the French title for the 12th season in succession, with Hegerberg top-scoring with 31 goals. Her goal-scoring exploits have often led to comparisons with her male Ballon d’Or winning counterparts, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I think the fact I scored 54 goals last season and 53 goals this year – it’s a lot of goals in one year,” she said. I know it’s difficult to score 50 goals every season. It is a challenge. That is where I set the bar,” she has said.
During the 2017-18 campaign, she matched Ronaldo’s 15-goal haul and tweeted at him to match her.
She has the record for the most goals in a Women’s Champions League season and has won it thrice with her team Lyon. In 2016, Uefa’s Best Women’s Player award as Lyon won the treble, following it with BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year in 2017. She also stepped back from the national team after Euro 2017 exit because she said that girls don’t have the same opportunities as the boys in Norway. Her sister Andrine Hegerberg also plays in France, for Paris Saint-Germain.
The “Twerk” controversy
Now that it established – not that it should have needed that – that Hegerberg is a deserving winner of the first women’s Ballon D’Or, let’s talk about the incident that marred her celebratory night.
The 23-year-old was asked if she would “twerk” – a sexually provocative dance – by French host DJ, Martin Solveig, and appeared embarrassed as she rejected the request. She did shake a leg with him, but the entire episode had a very uncomfortable feel to it. Solveig apologised and said he was taken aback by the stormy reaction online.
Before you wonder, no Luka Modric – who also won a historic Ballon d’Or ending Messi-Ronaldo’s decade-long duopoly – was not asked to twerk.
Hegerberg herself said that incident should not overshadow the historic step for women’s football. “He came to see me after and apologised. The Ballon d’Or is the most important thing.”
But the apology was for the “joke” which happened due to a communication error and he is always respectful of women... he called her to “not to twerk but dance on a Sinatra song.”
While the internet reaction storm points out at a lot more awareness than there used to be on the issue, the apology shows that Solveig didn’t even understand the problem. He was sorry because of the reaction, not because he realises what he said was offensive.
As footage of the incident went viral, British tennis player Andy Murray and long-time critic of gender discrimination in sport, led the backlash saying, “Why do women still have to put up with that shit?” Many prominent people in the football fraternity and the media also called out the incident on social media.
Of course this is not the first nor will it be the last time that women athletes and other female stakeholders in sport will be subject to discrimination, whether intentional or through unwitting entitlement.
Before the ceremony, Hegerberg told The Guardian that she found it “really frustrating” that sport remains “such a man’s world.”
“Sometimes you have episodes or situations where you feel like, damn, we’re in such a man’s world. But at the same time I’ve never looked at myself different from men’s football. I’ve always felt the same – I work hard to try to achieve my dreams, like every other girl out there.”
‘Man’s world’ is an apt way to put it. Women’s sport is still seen through the spectrum of the male gaze. There have been so many incidents of casual and blatant sexism in sport – from the athletes to umpires to presenters – that it is almost hard to list them down in brief.
In the last few months, there has been the case of female player being penalised for changing her shirt at the US Open while men are allowed to change on-court or the one where FC Basel woman team were made to sell tombola as the men partied. Tennis players have been asked to twirl to show off their dresses, a woman cricketer was asked about her favourite male cricketer, the country’s best player was asked when she will “settle down” and have a family.
It’s hard to imagine this discrimination and sexism will go away instantly, but the increased awareness is at least a small win.
But the question remains, to paraphrase Sir Andy, why is it okay to ask women athletes questions that have little to do with their game and more to do with their gender? It is 2018 and it is time we stopped describing a sportswoman’s “smile” and “style” or call her physique “leggy” or “masculine”, or indeed comment on anything that is not about the sport she plays.