Sportswomen deserve statues too – and why wait to put them up?

With England hosting the business end of this year’s Euros, the two statues outside Wembley Stadium are likely to enjoy more attention than in previous pandemic months. One is of England great Bobby Moore at the end of Wembley Way and, some 50 metres further on, stands another honouring five legends of English rugby league. A former female footballer is yet to be commemorated in such a way at the home of English football.

That has changed last week — sort of — thanks to Snapchat, which has created virtual statues outside Wembley of former England and Arsenal icon Rachel Yankey and former Tottenham star Eartha Pond, one of the most influential players to have graced the women’s domestic game.

Pond, who is being commemorated with John Barnes and Viv Anderson on the app, is the only one of the quartet who was not capped internationally. “I think for a lot of girls of black heritage, that’s one of the key positives,” said Pond, a councillor and campaigner who helped raise more than £100,000 for the Grenfell Tower tragedy two weeks after helping Tottenham secure promotion to the Women’s Super League in 2017. “Even if you’re not recognised internationally because of barriers, or intersectionality, or because of unconscious bias, the ability to still be recognised outside of that selection process is super important.”

The feedback to the virtual statues, Pond says, has been a chorus of people asking why real ones haven’t been put up. It smacks of the unconscious racial bias that exists around statues of former footballers in the UK. Of the 200 statues of players that have been counted, only four are black. Nor is there a single one of a woman outside a football stadium. 

Coupled with the historical gender imbalance when it comes to celebrating women in public life — from monuments and banknotes to streets and buildings named — it is hardly surprising that there are only three statues of sportswomen in the UK. When a statue of Dame Kelly Holmes was unveiled in the Kent village of Pembury in 2012, it drew criticism for resembling Jessica Ennis-Hill, British heptathlon champion, rather than the double middle distance gold medallist herself (it was so bad one local thought it was a young Princess Anne).

There isn’t even a statue honouring Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win Wimbledon in 1956, who was also the first champion at the All England Club to receive her trophy from the Queen. This lack is reflective of the myriad black sportswomen who have radically transformed British sport, but with very little acknowledgement. Take Anita Neil, who was only recognised by the British Olympic Association last month as Britain’s first black Olympian, almost half a century after her retirement.

According to research conducted by Dr Chris Stride, a statistician behind the database of sporting statues, the unwritten criteria for statue choices favours memory over history and recent successes rather than trailblazers. That chimes with the narrative that played out when Clare Connor, the president of Marylebone Cricket Club, put forward plans for a statue to commemorate the former England captain and women’s cricket pioneer Rachel Heyhoe Flint outside Lord’s last month, only for one member to reportedly dismiss them as “gesture politics”.

The 2019 Women’s Footbal World Cup brought with it a bumper year for statues honouring past female footballers. Along with the one of Lily Parr, the pioneering footballer in the 1920s that was unveiled in Manchester, four were erected in Sweden, while Dutchwoman Sarina Wiegman, who will take charge of Team GB’s women’s team at the Tokyo Olympics next month, became the first serving female coach to be immortalised alongside Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten in the Dutch city of Zeist. US striker Brandi Chastain also unveiled a statue of herself outside the Rose Bowl in homage to her jersey-shredding celebration after scoring the winning penalty in the 1999 World Cup final.