Only one sport in the London 2012 Olympic Games featured men and women competing against each other on a level playing field; in 1976 there were three. Are we going backwards? Is there a case for men and women to pitch battle more rather than less? Jo Gunston investigates
A right hulabaloo unfolded in below-the-line comments following a BBC Sport article published in the dim and distant past of December 2000. Entitled “Should women be allowed to play against men?”, it highlighted sports in which physical attributes should not necessarily exclude women from competing on an equal level with men.
Responses to the article varied from, “It is up to the men to prove they are the best, and not assume otherwise” to “Women compete against men in showjumping, and three-day eventing, so why shouldn’t they be able to compete against men at darts, snooker or bowls?” and “Why all the fuss? Why are men afraid of competition with women? Is it that the ‘weaker’ sex will actually prove that they are better than men at sport?”.
Interestingly, these comments came from men. Of 21 responses, only two came from women, with one lady suggesting that as long as women earned the right to take part in a competition, so be it, and the other commented: “If we really want to step forward in the world of sport, men and women should be able to play against each other. After all, it is the sport that is played in the competition that matters not the people who play it.”
The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, didn’t agree with women even taking part.
Before the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, the Frenchman declared the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”.
Four years later, he relented and women were allowed to compete at the Paris Games in the genteel sports of lawn tennis and golf. It wasn’t until the 2012 London Games that women were included in every sport, with boxing the last to fall. (Conversely, there seems little clamour from men to take part in synchronised swimming or rhythmic gymnastics…)
And there’s the rub. There are a number of sports in which women can take on men equally but are lagging behind, having been stymied at every turn – for many decades even needing permission to be “allowed” to take part.
Only one event at London 2012 had men and women competing against and alongside each other and that was equestrianism, horse riding being a necessity for transportation in ye olden days, but even then women were thwarted in any competitive development by being made to ride side-bloody-saddle.
Some sports have reverted to type. Women competed against men in sailing from the 1900 Games until Seoul in 1988, when separate sailing events were introduced for women; heavyweight boats, it was decided, made it impossible for women to compete fairly. Technological developments since then mean a joint class would likely now be feasible.
Shooting used to be mixed until after the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where the American Margaret Thompson Murdock tied for gold with her male teammate Lanny Bassham. He was awarded the gold on further examination of the targets but at the next Olympics the sport was partially segregated because Murdock’s performance “was enough to put pressure on the International Olympic Committee – primarily from Eastern European teams – to segregate the sport”, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal published in 2012. Some classes remained mixed until China’s Zhang Shan won the Skeet class in 1992, after which the programme became wholly segregated.
Shooting is one of few sports in which women may even have a physical advantage over men, suggests Launi Mieli, head coach of the Air Force Academy rifle team and the only American woman to win an Olympic gold in small-bore rifle. “Women have a lower centre of gravity and I think that gives them a distinct advantage in shooting from the standing position,” she explained.
In 1938 Helene Mayer beat all the men to win the San Francisco division of the Amateur Fencers’ League of America. Her title was revoked days later by fencing officials in New York on the grounds that “fencing involved a form of bodily contact, even though it was just with the tip of the foil, and that a chivalrous man found it difficult to do his worst when he faced a woman”, according to a contemporary article featured in Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano’s book Playing with the Boys.
A newspaper headline before the match put it more succinctly: “Blonde German girl threatens to win men’s fencing title.”
This is just old-fashioned gumpf, right? Apparently not. In August 2013, 12-year-old Maddy Baxter was kicked off her American football team after happily playing up to sixth grade. At the start of the next school year, the Strong Rock Christian School in Georgia banned her from participating because “boys have lustful thoughts and might think of Maddy in an impure way”. A Facebook page set up by Maddy and her mum to persuade the school to change their position attracted nearly 50,000 supporters.
There’s no reason why men and women can’t compete equally at darts or snooker either. Reanne Evans, from Dudley, who got involved in snooker playing against her brothers, has won the ladies world title a record nine successive times and is making inroads into the main professional tour.
A cracking head-to-head against Ken Doherty in the 2015 World Snooker Championships qualifier in which she narrowly lost to the former world champion 10-8 made many sit up and take notice. “There’s no reason why I can’t beat people like Ken if I play a bit better,” she told BBC Sport.
There’s no doubt women have some physical limitations on competing against men in certain sports. Even Serena Williams, arguably the most powerful female tennis player ever, baulked when challenged by Andy Murray to a battle-of-the-sexes match. “‘I doubt I’d win a point but it would be fun,” said the winner of 17 Grand Slams. “Murray is one of the top three people I definitely don’t want to play,” she added, implying she could whup the rest of them.
And yet, there are anomalies. In 2011 Lizzy Hawker won the 24-hour Commonwealth
Mountain and Ultra Distance Championship in Wales, running just over 153 miles, two more than runner-up, John Pares, the Welsh champion, who declared: “It was an honour to have been in the same race as Lizzy. She is a world-class athlete – Superwoman!”
“It did hurt – a lot,” admitted Hawker, “but I’m really pleased to have won and taken the world record. It was also great to demonstrate just what women athletes can achieve by beating all the men.”
Women doing well against men in endurance events has become a regular enough occurrence for a verb to have been created for the feat: to be “chicked”.
As in Chrissie Wellington “chicked” all but one man in the Alpe d’Huez Ironman – a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile cycle and a marathon – in 2008.
Some studies have shown that oestrogen, the female hormone, may protect muscles from exercise-induced damage and there’s also a suggestion that women have a higher tolerance to pain. Man flu, anyone?
Sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur proved her physical and mental endurance mettle in 1995, breaking the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.
The 2008-09 edition of the Vendée Globe, a solo round-the-world yacht race, brought fourth and sixth place, respectively, for the only female competitors, the British pair of Samantha Davies and Dee Caffari. Now sailing for Team SCA, Davies is part of the all-female crew currently taking part in the Volvo Ocean Race, competing on an equal financial footing with male crews for the first time. They’ve won two inshore races and one leg… so far. You’ll notice their boat – it’s the pink one.
Even women who have taken on the bastions of testosterone-fuelled sporting arenas and not succeeded deserve kudos for breaking the mould. Lauren Silberman became the first female kicker to try out at an NFL-sponsored regional scouting combine for an American football team last year. She took two kicks and limped off with a thigh injury. The scribes were merciless: “pointless sideshow”, “terrible”, “sham”.
It’s a wonder she got out of bed in the morning. Nevertheless, Silberman lay the stepping stones for little girls growing up, although the evolution of women’s sport can be a painfully slow process.
It took 58 years for Annika Sorenstam to become the second woman to play a match on the men’s PGA Tour, after Babe Zaharias did it in 1945. The Swede didn’t make the
cut – Babe did – but then women have only relatively recently been allowed onto golf courses. Michelle Wie came next, progressed further and made the cut for the Asian Tour SK Telecom Open, albeit that was once in 13 attempts.
The argument against women succeeding alongside men in golf is that the men’s fairways are longer and men can hit the ball further; yet 14-year-old Chinese golfer Guan Tianlang became the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters in Augusta last year and at 5ft 9in and 145lb, his stature is not that different to many females.
The American racing driver Danica Patrick is another pioneer in a male-dominated sport, becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar series race and finishing third at the blue-riband Indy 500 in 2009. She’s creating plenty of interest too; USA Today reported that Patrick was Yahoo’s most searched athlete in 2011, above even golfer Tiger Woods.
A family affair
British driver Alice Powell was inspired by her family gathering round the TV to watch
Formula One and received only encouragement as she ran around the table pretending to be a driver. These days, the 22-year-old is the first female to win a Formula Renault championship and regularly competes against all boys.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King triumphed in a battle-of-the-sexes match against misogynistic numpty Bobby Riggs in 1973. Granted, Riggs was 55 and King 29, but the event in Houston, Texas, captured the imagination of the public and is seen as a catalyst that eventually resulted in women being paid the same prize money as men in Grand Slam tournaments. However, women are still having to fight.
In 2013 Alpine ski queen Lindsey Vonn lost a battle with the sport’s authorities to have at least one race against the men; women were only ‘allowed’ to compete in ski jumping for the first time at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics after a group of US world leading ski jumpers took the International Olympic Committee to court in 2009 on the basis of discrimination; and in September 2014, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club finally allowed women to join as members. That’ll be the same year that Saudi Arabia moved to allow girls to play sport in schools, then.
It is this fighting spirit that enable women to continue to break the mould but when they can just play sport, rather than fight to even be allowed in the game, that may be when women will start giving men a run for their money.
Written by @jogunston
A version of this article, written by Jo Gunston first appeared in Women in Sport magazine in 2013.