Monday, September 11, 2017

Women in sport: how far have we come?

Last week in class we watched a clip from the Makers documentary. This told the story of Kathrine Switzer, who, in 1967, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant. At the time, women were not sanctioned to enter the iconic race but Katherine had completed her application in the way she normally signed her name, ie as “K V Switzer”. Consistent with the attitudes of the time, race organizers “naturally” assumed that she was male.

Katherine didn’t enter the 1967 Boston Marathon looking for a fight. She simply loved to run. However, the race official, Jock Semple, was so outraged when he saw her racing with the other competitors (all male) that he ran onto the course and attempted to physically pull her away and rip off her numbered bib. Although Katherine’s story made headlines at the time, it was another five years before women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon.

Fifty years on, we rightly celebrate the undoubted progress that women have made in the sport and fitness world since Katherine’s frightening 1967 encounter with sporting officialdom in Boston. No one today bats an eyelid at female marathon runners. In fact, it’s a recognised Olympic sport. Women’s participation in various other sporting and fitness disciplines has rocketed. Indeed, we’re now increasingly being accepted even into “traditionally male” sports like boxing (Ireland’s very own Katie Taylor being one such example) as well as soccer and rugby. All of us – male and female – are increasingly familiar with and accepting of ever more female sporting role models such as Serena Williams and Nicole Adams. Clearly, we have come a long, long way since 1967. Or have we?

A seemingly trivial remark apparently made about me a few days ago prompted me to question how far women have actually come since 1967. What triggered the thought was something a friend told me the other day about what a male student had apparently said of me. What was stated was apparently along the lines of:- “I saw that Irish girl [me] in the gym yesterday and she looked like she really knew what she was doing… Is she doing that for the float trip next weekend?”

I never heard the comment myself and I’m sure there was a compliment intended in there somewhere. Yet for some initially inexplicable reason, I can’t help but feel slightly offended. Why?

Perhaps, I’m simply neurotic. Or, perhaps, I’m unduly sensitive about being Irish outside in the United States and that someone would assume that, as an “Irish girl,” I would not be expected to “know what I was doing” in the gym (particularly in the male-dominated weights area, where I spend most of my sessions). But no, I know that the comment was in no way derogatory of my Irishness. That is simply part of who I am and how I’m known here, and is perfectly fine.

So what was it about the reported remark that caused me to react so badly? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my real issue was the seeming association between my interest in the gym and personal vanity. To me it implied that my sole motive for being in the gym was to make myself appear more physically attractive on a weekend outing – presumably to male students. In short, I (rightly or wrongly) interpreted the statement as judgemental and demeaning, not of the Irish, but of females in general who choose to go to the gym, exercise or take part in sport. I am sceptical that a statement like this would have been made about me if I had been male.

As earth-shatteringly appalling as it may sound coming from a female, I actually love the gym, and I love exercise. I have been weight lifting for several years now, and health and fitness has become a very important part of my life. It has helped not only my physical health, but also my mental well-being. In the past, I have struggled with anxiety, and, for me, the gym and other activities like hiking, horse riding and swimming have become my “sanctuary.”  It’s where I go when I’m stressed or upset or just simply need a bit of “me-time.” It makes me feel strong and confident. Of course, all of us like to look well and to keep our weight in control. But that is a human desire and is certainly not the sole preserve of females!

The question I’ve been left with is whether a seemingly throw away remark about my reasons for exercising might be exemplary of wider barriers that women still need to overcome in the area of sport and fitness. I found myself wondering whether the 1967 spirit of Jock Semple still survives in sport – albeit, perhaps, in a more covert and less glaring form? Once I began to look further into the subject, it became hard for me to avoid the conclusion that a bit of the outraged spirit of Jock Semple might still lurk amongst us, perhaps somewhere in the depths. In preparing this blog I googled “women in sport” and was stunned to discover that the first search result was an article entitled, “Top 10 Most Beautiful Women in Sport”. The more I searched, the more I found female sports being praised (or criticised) for their bodies, rather than for the hard work they put in for competitions or the titles they win.

And what of girls in sport who may not correspond to the traditional stereotype of a physically slender female that many men find appealing? I noticed that, in recent years, Olympic gold-medalist, Caster Semenya, was barred from competing and was subjected to degrading gender testing simply because the media and athletic associations thought she looked “too masculine”. Such attitudes are reinforced by the limited nature of media coverage of women’s sports. Studies show that only about 4% of sportscoverage in local and national media is dedicated to women’s sport. Self-evidently, female athletic achievements are much less important to the popular press than male.

If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, how can I blame any male student for possibly suggesting that, as a girl, I only go to the gym because I want to impress men? If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, no wonder there remains a significant disparity between male and female participation nationally and internationally. If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, should we be surprised that, by the age of 14, for example, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys? Surely all this merely serves to maintain life support for the 1967 Jock Semple notion that women and girls don’t belong in the sport and fitness arena on the same basis as men?

Women today owe a huge debt of gratitude to people like Katherine Switzer. Their personal courage, determination and audacity opened a huge new door of freedom and opportunity for women in sport over the past 50 years. However, we owe it to Katherine - and we owe it to the many other brave women of her generation - to remember her example and not to become complacent. It is Katherine’s spirit - not the 1967 spirit of Jock Semple - that most needs life support today and which we must, in our own and our children’s interest, endeavor to keep alive and perpetuate.

Yes, we have come a long, long way from the 1967 Boston Marathon. But the journey is not yet over.


B. Williams said...

I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I had to participate in athletics growing up. I especially found my experiences in college and post-college athletics helped lay a foundation for continued growth and success in my educational and professional career. Sports foster grit, a team-oriented mindset, a strong work ethic, and the self confidence that comes from setting and achieving goals. It's frustrating to think that women are missing out on these opportunities due to lack of access, lack of funding, social stigma, or lack of prestige accorded to women's college/professional sports.

On a separate note: I played rugby competitively for 10 years, which is a very physically-taxing enterprise. I've had black eyes, broken bones, and concussions. There is a culture in both men's and women's rugby (that I am not necessarily a proponent of.. ) of gritting your teeth and playing through/shaking off some pretty ridiculous injuries. Most women on my team had suffered a gnarly injury playing rugby. As a result, te all rolled our eyes a bit when the internet fell in love with "Rugby Hottie." ( R.H. was a collegiate sevens player who went viral after breaking her nose during a rugby match and then immediately landing a massive hit on an opposing player. We'd seen scenes like this multiple times a season, and yet this girl was suddenly internet famous because she was not only savage on the field but also traditionally beautiful. It was a reminder that to be "good enough" and to garner attention and respect for our sport, we couldn't just be tough, skilled athletes... we also had to be sexually desirable and gorgeous at the same time.

Omar de la Cruz said...

Thank you for your great blog post, I was shocked to find out that only 4% sports coverage in the media is dedicated to women. Surely the reason for has to do with gender rather than achievement. For example, the US Men's soccer team has been abysmal throughout its existence, at best finishing third in the World Cup. Meanwhile the Women's team, which is 100 years younger than the Men's team, has won the World Cup three times! Despite this the women are paid less even though they are more successful and bringing in more revenue than the men. As you mention in your post, we have come a long way but the journey is far from over. Lastly I want to say that I was saddened but not surprised to read about what was said about you going to the gym. I've known many people over the years that have similar perspectives as whoever made the comment about you. I hope that you continue to be true to yourself and do the things that make you happy, shattering stereotypes as you do it.

Suzanne Connell said...

Great post Aoife!

I thought it was a really well written piece and I really enjoyed reading about your personal experiences in coping with the adverse forces you face on a daily basis while in the pursuit of your passion. I identified with many of the sentiments you expressed, particularly when talking about being the only girl in the seemingly "male only" weights section of the gym. I myself have only recently started lifting weights and really progressing in my fitness journey, but I still can't help but feel like I'm out of place when I pick up a dumbbell, that I'm getting in the way of the "big boy" work, or that I'm undeserving of the space at a bench simply because I'm relatively feeble in comparison to my male counterparts.

In fact, my decision to really start taking my fitness seriously was largely delayed for many years based on this insecurity and intimidation that I felt simply for being female in a male dominated domain. I struggle with the double standard imposed on women in this area. While I'm generalising here, I will say that a lot of men I personally know are attracted to the "Instagram" physique and claim to love girls who lift, however I don't necessarily see this admiration translate from the default double tap to the real world. What I find even more disheartening is looking to the plethora of sports that boast overflowing stadiums for the mens games, yet only a smattering of loyal supporters along with a few tumbleweeds showing up to the female matches. What kind of message is this sending to young girls around the world with any sort of sporting aspirations? That even when you reach the highest level in your discipline, you're still not worth as much as men?

Tennis is one of the few anomalies in sport in which the female and men's games roughly share the limelight. Despite this, women are still plagued with degrading comments such as that of Raymond Moore, the chief executive of the Indian Wells Masters Tennis Tournament, who stated last year that the Women's Tennis Association was a "lucky organisation" which "rides on the coattails" of men. He then later added, "If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport, they really have". His views aren't completely isolated either, Novak Djokavic the world number one at the time these comments were made responded by saying that men should fight for more prize money because the men's game attracts more viewers and generates more revenue. Even this year on the run up to Wimbledon, John McEnroe with an illustrious career of his own attempted to decimate Serena Williams', the highest ranked women's player in the world, by saying "if she played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world". It seems to be that even being the best in the world still isn't good enough for some.

Overall, I found your piece to be informative and effective in exposing the inequalities faced by women both in the gym and in sport and I share your hopes that these inequalities may be eradicated at least in our lifetimes.

mxengel said...

It really is a shame that women are not taken as seriously in the eyes of the media as men are when it comes to sports. Women’s sports are just as entertaining and thrilling as men’s.

Something not addressed in your analysis is that when men think about women like this, it hurts men as well. Both in the toxic-masculinity sense, where men think that women do not belong in spaces, and "real-men" only belong in certain places, but also in terms of achieving excellence in sports themselves. I'm male, and I played tennis for four years in high school. My coach tried to model his players, both male and female, after Serena Williams. He believed that her backhand and serve, in terms of technique, accuracy, and power, were the best in the game. It did not matter that she was a woman because she was the best. He wanted us to be the best, and she was the best. This did turn a couple boys off from the sport (they preferred Nadal and Federer, and sometimes Agassi). But I am so glad that my coach made me play like her. I have the best backhand and kick-serve of all of my friends, male or female, because I spent hundreds of hours watching her and practicing to be like her. I still idolize her, and everything she does. I think if society was willing to learn to play like both the best male and female players, all of our athletes would be even better than they are now.

Do not ever stop going to the gym if it is something you love. Never let comments stop you from doing something you love. Because one day, someone might look up to you, and strive to play or work like you.