Women in Sport Today

It may be argued that women still do not compete on equal terms with men in many sports, but this is really a matter of performance rather than opportunity. This is traceable not to lack of application or unsuitability, but to physiological differences. We need to take into account that women in many sports are following rules originally designed by men to test male skills. It may be that some sports would see women emerge as more successful than men if they were played within a regulatory framework which was adapted to female strengths.

This is unlikely ever to happen, because the traditions in women’s sport are now so strong, but it is one more factor which has worked against women as competitors in sport. While physiological differences may have narrowed considerably in the last thirty years, they are still wide enough for almost all athletic competition to require single-gender participation. There are exceptions. Women have competed at the top level at croquet, but this is not a popular activity: the outstanding success of women in equestrian events, on the other hand, has shown that the term ‘horsemanship’ is not only sexist but inaccurate.

However, women do not and almost certainly will not compete with men in most sports, and, indeed, there is no reason why they should, although there is occasionally a dispute over which sports should be classed as unisex – rally driving and equestrianism are, but should sailboarding and ballet skiing be single-sex, too? Brailsford [1991: 142] compares male / female differences to divisions within sport for men, to which solutions have been found: … and if the competition is to be separate, why should women slavishly follow game forms which were originally devised by and for men?

It is the sort of issue which male sport has had to face within its own confines in the past. Early pugilism made no distinctions between large fighters and smaller ones – the classification of boxers by weight came in only gradually throughout the nineteenth century. Closer competition between racehorses was secured by handicapping. It will doubtless be left to the twenty-first century to see the emergence of a distinctive women’s sporting world, equal to that of men, overlapping it, but with its own characteristic elements and offering something beyond synchronised swimming.

Taking Part and Being There Participation levels in sport for women are now higher than ever, particularly in sports whose main aim is fitness – jogging, aerobics and swimming have traditionally been the most popular [HMSO, 1995: 2: 26], but the first of these has given way to the other two, which can be practised in the safe environment of the club or sports centre. Figures published recently by the Sports Council[1996: 29] show that only 2% of women now jog, whereas the figures for aerobics and swimming both top 15%; cycling is up to 7%.

Hargreaves [103] contends that, although participation levels in some traditionally male domains – football, rugby, cricket etc – remain low, the numbers watching on television and gambling on these sports is much higher, and women bet as much as men on football results. To Hargreave’s categories – which date back to the football hooligan era of the mid-eighties- can be added the new trend of widespread live attendance which has accompanied the rebuilding of football and rugby stadia.

Cricket has always attracted a certain amount of support among women, apparently because of its safety and ‘decorum’ record, but numbers of women at football matches are currently the highest ever recorded. Significantly, it is younger women and girls who are going, suggesting that within a generation, when the older, men-only element has stopped attending, the male / female ratio will be significantly altered: … there is no reason to suppose that the numbers will not be approximately equal within twenty years or so.

What is equally revealing is that the direct involvement of working-class women in sport has increased dramatically in the last two decades, particularly amongst Blacks. Athletes and sports stars from the USA, France, Jamaica and Britain, as well from Africa, have provided role models for young British Blacks, but working-class Whites are also seeing sport as a career option in a way which was never before feasible.

This has come about partly as a result of a shift in traditional family values, which has signalled an evaporation of working-class male reluctance to accept women in ‘their sphere’. More importantly, however, the relaxation of the restrictions on earnings, especially in athletics, has meant that the talented woman competitor has a realistic chance of financial reward. Until recently, the only sports which offered prize money of any significance were tennis and, to a lesser extent, golf, both of which have a middle-class tradition.

Even this is changing, for tennis is now attracting working-class girls [and boys] thanks to Sports Council and Lawn Tennis Association initiatives, and Blacks in Britain are being attracted to the sport for the first time. Media Representations There is still a degree of sexism in women’s sport, and there is no doubt that physical attractiveness is a factor in terms of media exposure. [It is becoming increasingly relevant in respect of men, too, now that advertising and sponsorship are such an important financial element.]

Crump [62] cites the case of Mary Slaney, who received the wholesale attention of the Western media in the mid-eighties; her Czech contemporary, Ludmilla Kratochvilova was more successful on the track but her perceived lack of photogenic appeal meant that she was almost disregarded by television and press. The same might be said of sponsorship, but the position is somewhat different: if it is sexist to advertise through glamour, then it is in response to market forces, for the advertisers’ principal concern is profitable business, not political correctness.

The media have no such excuse, and as long as female competitors are referred to in respect of their physical attributes rather than their skill or performance, then we can consider that there is still some way to go before sport in Britain is truly devoid of gender bias. Barriers Broken Such criticisms are relatively minor, however, in the light of all that has been achieved in women’s sport. We live in an age not only where men and women jockeys ride together, but where women train and own champion racehorses [Vamplew: 1989: 239].

Women have taken over new roles [the managing director of Birmingham City Football Club is a young woman whose business sense – rather than nepotism or publicity-seeking on the part of the club- got her the job] and are entering fields of activity which would have been closed to them just a generation ago: there are a number of women football commentators working for the BBC, and women are producing more sports programmes for radio and television: Karen Buchanan is founding editor of the football magazine Four-Four-Two, which is highly regarded by players and fans.

The trend of the nineties is one of female involvement in leadership and organisation. It is an area which still needs development, for there can only be genuine equality if administrators and decision makers come from both the male and female sectors. Gone for good, however, are the days when a concern over the ‘breeding parts of the anatomy’ could impede the involvement of women in sport, and we are unlikely to see women banned from the golf course for an inability to keep still and quiet.

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