Women, War and Sport: The Battle of the 2019 Solheim Cup | A Summary

Ali Bowes1, Alan Bairner2, Stuart Whigham3 and Niamh Kitching4
1 Nottingham Trent University; 2 Loughborough University;
3 Oxford Brookes University; 4 Mary Immaculate College

The paper investigates the print media’s role in connecting women’s golf to national identity, using as a case study the 2019 Solheim Cup, contested by teams of women golfers representing Europe and the United States respectively. The concept of a European team had heightened significance with the hosting of the cup in Scotland in 2019, given the fact that it took place at the time when the United Kingdom was leaving the European Union against the wishes of the majority of Scots who had voted in the 2016 referendum on EU membership.  This offered interesting considerations about Europe, the European Union and what it means to be a European.  However, as we were to find out, despite these other nuances and contestations, there remained a significant national dimension to the media’s treatment of the competition.

Male athletes are often eulogized as modern-day warriors due largely to an exaggerated ideal of manhood. When sport is likened to war, it is likely that only male athletes are regarded as proxy warriors. Given the increasing visibility of the world’s best sportswomen in newspapers and on television, however, it is worth considering where they fit into the sport–nation–war nexus.

Women’s inclusion within the sports media is, of course, itself problematic. When women find themselves on the sports pages of the popular press, they are often represented in ways that restrict our imagination about women’s sport. Portrayals of female golfers face these problems, with both televised and print media coverage of golf having continued to offer representations that reinforce divisions of gender, class, disability and race, However, there is some evidence of resistance to the gendered norms and traditional depictions of women in golf media. For example, although the media coverage of Annika Sörenstam’s involvement in the men’s 2003 PGA Colonial Tournament retained a gendered angle, there were also examples of non-gendered explanations of her successes. We wondered if this would also be observable in coverage of the Solheim Cup.

Data for this paper were collected via the online electronic news database Nexis UK, searching for full text newspaper articles from publications in the United Kingdom, using the keywords ‘Solheim’. Articles were collected between 12th August 2019, the day of the first Solheim Cup team announcement, until the 22nd September 2019, a week following the tournament.

Of the 136 articles that were analysed in depth, 91 (or 67%) mentioned the specific national identity of the European players. Indeed, the very first article of the data set highlights the central position of national identity: ‘The eight players to qualify automatically include England’s Georgia Hall and Charley Hull, plus rookie Anne van Dam from Holland, the longest hitter in the game’ (Daily Mail, 12 August 2019).

14 further articles referred to Team USA players as American, without any reference to a European player, highlighting that national identification was present in over three quarters (77%) of the print media coverage. Only 11 of the articles referred to the players of Team Europe as ‘European’, with no mention of their individual national identification. This demonstrates how important national identity is, not only as part of the supra-national European identity that being part of Team Europe instigates, but as a media strategy in their representation of the athletes. Of the remaining articles, only 20 failed to mention the national identity of either the European or American players.

It became apparent that the print media coverage focused on the Solheim Cup as golf, female golfers as golfers, and generally on the competition as sport. This marks a move towards greater legitimation of the women’s inclusion as athletes. To achieve this, the media foregrounded the national (and in some cases, supra-national) identification of the players, ascribing national importance to their performances and reducing the likelihood that the coverage would be gendered. The symbolic language was evident throughout and especially at the conclusion of the tournament, where the print media hailed Suzann Pettersen as ‘heroic’ after she holed the winning putt:

‘You just have to grab the moment,’ said Pettersen.  She did that all right. A stroke as pure as you like, and when the ball disappeared the 38-year-old Norwegian warrior let out a primal roar. In the twilight of a great career, Pettersen declared the moment so perfect, it would be her final putt. (Daily Mail, 16 September 2019).

The women were regularly presented as proxy warriors in battle and, therefore, as both legitimate athletes and legitimate national representatives.

Copyright © Ali Bowes, Alan Bairner,
Stuart Whigham & Niamh Kitching 2020

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