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It’s been a year of great highs and great lows… and not just politically. We’ve seen women rise to the top of their sports and be dragged back down – making 2021 one of the most important years for female players and athletes.  

Last night, Emma Raducanu became the first female tennis player to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year since 1977 – and the first woman to take the crown for 15 years. 

What a year it’s been for Raducanu, who passed her A Levels shortly after winning the US Open, and what a way to put British women’s tennis back on the map.

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2021 has been an incredible year for women’s sport

But her victories both on the court and last night are just the latest in what’s been an action-packed year for women’s sport. At the start of the month, I went to the Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, alongside nearly 41,000 other spectators. 

This year might not have been record-breaking in terms of the numbers coming through the turnstiles but given the fact that Omicron was just beginning to rear its ugly head, it was amazing to see how many people schlepped it to west London. The brilliant coverage of the competition and final on TV, radio and in print was more extensive than I’ve ever seen.

And then, of course, there were the Olympics. The games saw cyclists like Sarah Storey and Laura Kenny smash their own records – inspiring loads of us to take to our bikes. There were also devastating but incredibly inspirational moments in athletes like Katarina Johnson Thompson having to prematurely drop out because of injury. The Great Comeback of Simone Biles (who had to take a mental health break for part of the competition) and Dina Asher Smith personified resilience in the face of adversity.

Misogynoir and the silencing of women

But 2021 was also marred by uncomfortable realities. We saw a ban on afro-friendly swimming caps (the specific brand of which Team GB swimmer Alice Dearing is an ambassador), and questions over how society and the media treat non-white women like Naomi Osaka when they refuse to play ball in order to protect their mental health.

Perhaps the most alarming example of just how unsafe some professional female athletes are is the case of Peng Shuai, who opened up about the sexual assault she allegedly experienced at the hands of a top Chinese official before seemingly disappearing. She has since denied ever making the claims.

While her disappearance was deeply worrying, it was incredible to see the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) put their money where their month is and refuse to hold any tournaments in China until there was evidence that Shuai was alive and well – unlike the Olympic committee which was slammed for how it handled its contact with the tennis player after concerns over her safety first emerged. The cynics among us might suggest that it was only to be expected that a women’s league would be the only organisation willing to take a financial hit for defending the wellbeing of another woman…

2022 will be *the* year for women’s football

2022, we all hope, will be a better, brighter year for us all. Within the sporting world, we hope that matches will go ahead, athletes won’t have to miss any events and that women continue to shine through. And they definitely will, with the UEFA Women’s Euros coming to the UK in the spring. Uefa reported back in November that it’d already had over 200,000 ticket applications for the tournament and, indeed, I’ve lost every ticket ballot I’ve applied for. The appetite for women’s football is only growing and next year, we’ll be able to see the Lionesses shine on home turf in front of a continent-wide audience.

If you need to see how far we’ve come in terms of women’s football, you only need to look across the pond at US soccer, which offered identical contracts to the men’s and women’s teams back in September after the women won their landmark lawsuit against the gender pay gap. Over here, the gap is still huge (Chelsea’s Fran Kirby is paid annually roughly the same as her male teammate Lukaku receives weekly) but we’ve got to hope that the tide is only moving forward.

Among all the doom and gloom of this year, women’s sport has made life more exciting. There’s a long way to go in terms of coverage, pay, respect and overall equality but 2022 could just be the watershed moment.

For more stories of more brilliant Strong Women, follow us on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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