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Clare Balding hails 2022 as a momentous year for women’s sport and praises ‘influential’ Beth Mead

2022 has been a remarkable year for women’s sport in the UK. Spearheaded by Sarina Wiegman’s heroic Lionesses, it is the year that will be remembered for victories on home soil.

Following England’s triumph at Euro 2022, with their victory over Germany in the final played in front of an 87,192 crowd at Wembley and watched by 23.3m on the BBC – the most watched TV programme of the year – attention turned to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

England, Scotland and Wales won a combined 256 medals between them in a pulsating 11 days of action.

2022 has been a year full of triumphs in women’s sport in the UK, led by the Lionesses

England Women's rugby team are also in the World Cup final in New Zealand on Saturday

England Women’s rugby team are also in the World Cup final in New Zealand on Saturday

In truth it has been a year full of memories, with Savannah Marshall’s epic clash with Claressa Shields at a sold-out 02 Arena last month feeling like a defining moment for women’s boxing.

It could get even better, with the England Women’s rugby side on a run of 30 straight wins and now in the World Cup final in New Zealand after defeating Canada in Auckland last Saturday.

Clare Balding is hosting the 10th edition of the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Award

Clare Balding is hosting the 10th edition of the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Award

‘I think it’s been incredible I really do,’ broadcaster and long-time champion of women’s sport Clare Balding exclusively told Sportsmail when looking back on the past 12 months. 

‘Obviously, it’s been spearheaded by the Lionesses winning the Euros and the amount of interest and coverage it got. But I think it’s also been about the power of women to communicate with their fans and to do so to a broader audience.’

Balding is talking ahead of the 2022 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards – the 10th edition of the accolade which aims to celebrate six of 2022’s outstanding performances. 

This year’s nominees are the Euros Golden Boot winner and Player of the Tournament Beth Mead, diver Andrea Spendolini-Sirieix, British wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft, UFC superstar Molly McCann, long-distance runner Eilish McColgan and Eve Murihead – who won the only gold medal for Team GB at the 2022 Winter Olympics in curling.

‘It’s absolutely testament to the strength of women’s sport,’ added Balding when reflecting on the nominees and the variety of sports they compete in. 

‘But I think they all have bigger stories and messages and I’m so excited about where the last year takes women’s sports at the elite level.

‘The knock on effects for grassroots is huge in terms of how many more girls will take on sport in schools and want to take up different sports and how much those options have been increased.

We were also treated to two spectacular weeks of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

We were also treated to two spectacular weeks of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

‘Women’s voices are being respected and listened to on sport and I think that changes the landscape of it in a very powerful and important way. 

‘We’ve shifted so far and it’s really just so exciting for me to have witnessed that. It’s doesn’t feel like you’re fighting anymore and that’s lovely because you can just celebrate it.

‘You don’t have to make excuses or explain who these people are in the sense you used to before. That’s really important because you’re holding up examples to young girls about what you could be and that sport is something you can make a living from.

‘It was really difficult to shortlist the nominees. We did have extensive conversations around that and the long list was about 20 people and that’s bigger than it’s ever been before.’

There is no doubt the story of the year was the Lionesses and the remarkable way in how they captured the hearts of the nation in a home Euros.

Despite being one of the tournament favourites heading in, it wasn’t all plane-sailing, with Wiegman’s side showing remarkable resilience to overcome Spain after extra time in the quarter-finals, before their exhilarating victory at a packed-out Wembley against Germany in the final, as Chloe Smith netted a winner in extra time.  

UFC superstar Molly McCann is one of the award's nominees after a fine year of success

UFC superstar Molly McCann is one of the award’s nominees after a fine year of success

Eilish McColgan is another after she won a gold and silver medal at the Commonwealth Games

Eilish McColgan is another after she won a gold and silver medal at the Commonwealth Games

And for Balding, the delight of the triumph for the Lionesses was more than just the on pitch celebrations.

Balding explained: ‘The joy of those fans just made me smile. 

‘There were just so many examples of young boys and girls celebrating the achievements of those on the pitch – and they were doing it with no cynicism. There was just an innocence.’ 

A crucial part to the Lionesses success was the exploits of Mead as she won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament, scoring six goals and adding five assists in only five games.

Mead also came second in the Ballon d’Or to cap off a remarkable year that saw her provide 33 goal contributions for Arsenal last season. 

Sarina Wiegman helped to guide the Lionesses to glory with her inspirational leadership

Sarina Wiegman helped to guide the Lionesses to glory with her inspirational leadership

Chloe Kelly netted a dramatic winner in extra time in the Euro 2022 final against Germany

Chloe Kelly netted a dramatic winner in extra time in the Euro 2022 final against Germany

But it’s not only on the pitch where Mead has made a difference, with the Gunners star speaking out on significant societal issues, including the ‘disappointing’ decision to host the upcoming men’s World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality can be punished by death. 

Mead, who is openly gay herself, last week told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: ‘From the minute it was announced I thought, I mean it’s not the best idea.

‘Obviously the way they think and how they go is the complete opposite to what I believe and respect and although I’m cheering for the boys who are going to play football there, I still don’t think it’s the right place.

‘Unfortunately, money talks and the situation, even of the stadiums being built and the amount of people that have passed because of that.

‘I mean it’s not an ideal situation, it’s not something that I will be backing or promoting at all.

‘But unfortunately it is going ahead and it’s just disappointing, I guess, in that sense of there’s no respect on a lot of levels even though it’s a game of football.’

And Balding was in awe of Mead and believes she is a shining example of what sportswomen can achieve.

Balding said: ‘I think Beth Mead is one of the most influential individuals in this country right now. I think she thinks very carefully about what she says.

Beth Mead has been one of biggest sporting stars this year as she won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament at Euro 2022, while she also came second in the Ballon d'Or

Mead - pictured right with partner Vivianne Miedema - has also become well-known for speaking up on important issues off the pitch too

Beth Mead has been one of biggest sporting stars this year as she won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament at Euro 2022, while she also came second in the Ballon d’Or

‘She knows that she has a platform. She chooses to use it whether to chat about equality, performance or teamwork – all those things that are broader than just sport. 

‘She works really hard to hone her skills. Mead is a proper committed professional but also cares about what she represents on a broader level and she’s spoken about LGTBQ issues.

‘I think she is an absolute superstar representative of how women can represent themselves on a high profile stage.

‘She doesn’t shy away form it and I thinks she’s really outstanding – I’m a big big fan.’

It remains to be seen who emerges victorious in the 10th edition of the award, but the delight in Balding’s words at how far women’s sport has come is clear to see.

She said: ‘I am thrilled it’s such a broad range of sports that are represented and for every one of them they’ve not only achieved at a very high level but they’ve also tugged on our heartstrings and made us care and feel invested in their stories.

‘That why its important we have an awards ceremony like this. To be able to say look, lets put them in lights and be able to genuinely and fully celebrate what they’ve achieved.’

Clare Balding is hosting the 2022 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards. Tune in to see the winners revealed on Wednesday 16th November, live on BT Sport as well as Facebook and Youtube. Find out more via btsport.com/actionwoman 

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