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First among equals

The year 2012 belonged to London.

Susan Egelstaff, left, believes the achievements of the likes of boxer Nicola Adams, swimmer Ellie Simmonds and rowers Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins at the Olympics and Paralymics marked a real shift in the way Britain's leading sportswomen are regarded  Photographs: Getty Images, PA
Susan Egelstaff, left, believes the achievements of the likes of boxer Nicola Adams, swimmer Ellie Simmonds and rowers Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins at the Olympics and Paralymics marked a real shift in the way Britain's leading sportswomen are regarded Photographs: Getty Images, PA

It also belonged to Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray. But more than anyone, it belonged to Britain's sportswomen. Ever since Adam and Eve went for a jog around the Garden of Eden, women have been second-class citizens when it comes to sport. But 2012 has changed all of that. From Heather Stanning and Helen Glover winning Team GB's first gold medal of the London Olympics, to Jessica Ennis being the face of the Games and going on to claim gold, women were, for the first time ever, on an equal footing with their male counterparts.

The list of women who became superstars last summer is endless. Ennis spent the year leading up to London carrying the hopes of the nation on her slender shoulders. She herself admitted that anything less than a gold medal would be viewed by the public as a failure. But she delivered in emphatic style, dominating the heptathlon from the first event to win gold with 6955 points, the highest Olympic heptathlon score for 20 years.

The beauty of sport is its ability to produce stories which everyone can identify with. Of all the tales of heroism during this summer's Olympics, perhaps the one that the public connected with most was that of Katherine Grainger. Her three consecutive Olympic silver medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008 had her tagged as the perennial loser – although if three Olympic silvers makes you a loser, then what does that make the rest of us? In London, however, Grainger finally struck gold in the double sculls, along with Anna Watkins. Grainger called her medal "the people's medal" such was the goodwill towards her from the British public.

Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins may have dominated the headlines surrounding Team GB's indomitable cycling team, but the women were also phenomenally successful. Victoria Pendleton, the doyenne of female cycling in this country for the past decade, brought the curtain down on her remarkable career with a gold and a silver medal and in Laura Trott, a new queen of the velodrome was crowned. Trott departed London with two gold medals and, at just 20 years old, is likely to be a mainstay of GB's cycling team for years to come.

The cynics denouncing the inclusion of women's boxing in the Olympic programme for the first time were out in force. But Nicola Adams, the tiny eight-stone flyweight, charmed the British public on her journey towards winning the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded in women's boxing.

Of course, there were others. Jade Jones and Charlotte Dujardin became household names. Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey were two stars of the summer who transcended the Paralympics. Of Team GB's 65 gold medals in London, women won 29 of those, a significant increase on the 19 golds that they claimed in Beijing four years previously. And the female success stories of 2012 are not restricted to that fortnight in London. From a Scottish point of view, our sportswomen were outstanding. Hannah Miley became world short course swimming champion, Mhari Spence became world modern pentathlon champion and Carly Booth had a stellar season, winning twice on the Ladies European Golf Tour. Do not tell me that this is of less interest to the public than another exclusive on an Old Firm player breaking a fingernail.

The disparity in sports coverage between the sexes is truly shocking. Just 5% of media coverage of sport is dedicated to women's sport and a tiny 0.5% of commercial spend on sport is directed towards females. This, frankly, is not good enough. The London Olympics may have gone some way to rectifying this inequality, but there is still a considerable distance to go.

When you consider these dire statistics, it is hardly surprising that it translates into incredibly poor participation figures amongst women, and teenage girls in particular. Just 10% of 14-year-old girls participate in enough physical activity and while the reasons for this are wide-ranging, the lack of female role models within sport is certainly a prominent factor. Pre-Olympics, the highest profile role models for young girls were "it-girls" and WAGs: women who are famous for achieving very little. This summer, that all changed. Suddenly, girls are now aspiring to be like Ennis or Trott. They want an athletic body instead of a stick-thin body and for girls to be involved in sport is now viewed as normal rather than slightly aberrant.

Grainger, a Scot hailing from Glasgow, has proven that achieving athletic excellence need not be to the exclusion of everything else. In addition to her quartet of Olympic medals and six World Championship golds, she has a Masters degree, and is currently studying for a PhD in homicide. Having women such as this in the public eye is a huge step forward. Most young girls will never reach Olympic level in any sport, but this is irrelevant. To be active in any way brings an endless range of benefits, from social to health, and it is a lynchpin of a healthy society.

2012 has been a momentous year for sportswomen in Britain. While I am not naïve enough to think that the battle for equality is won with one successful summer of sport, I am certain that considerable progress has been made. True equality is still some way off, but the sportswomen who won the hearts and minds of the British public this summer have gone some way to achieving it.

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