Why are we afraid of women competing with men in sports?

Lindsey Vonn, one of the most successful skiers the United States has ever produced, requested the opportunity to compete against men at the prestigious Lake Louise competition. The International Ski Federation rejected her request because “one gender is not entitled to participate in the races of the other.” If men are biologically stronger and faster than women, why is there a need to shelter them from competition with women? Skiing is not a contact sport – one races against the clock and the slope.

Professor Mark Stoddart from Memorial University of Newfoundland argues that skiing is charged with gender associations, as risk-taking and speed are associated with masculinity, whereas caution and control are interpreted as “feminine”.

This is hardly surprising: the belief that there are inborn, permanent and biological differences between genders is the foundation of social order, not only in relation to sports but also to sexuality, parenting, work and combat.

In this context, the gendered and sexual identities of women who excel in “masculine” professions often come under scrutiny. Just last year, it was decided that South-African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, must undergo a “gender verification test” before she can participate in the World Championship competition, a test which she eventually passed successfully.

Nonetheless, in marathons and golfing, women have already been permitted to compete against men, following legal action. This has not just changed the lives of women who practice these sports, but also these sports’ gender biases and masculine codes, and gradually, our society in general.

There are many ways to create gender-equitable sports contests, yet still match equivalent competitors, such as introducing an “open weight” category, and adding another gender-open competition, alongside the separate ones. These changes are a necessary and positive adaptation and manifestation of women’s gain in physical and social capital.

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