During the USA’s victory over Canada in the group stages of the women’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympics late last week, the commentator’s proclamation that “of course bodychecking is illegal in women’s ice hockey” caught my attention. My immediate thoughts were that this is a classic example of the gendered nature in which women’s sport is viewed. Does it not seem ludicrous that an important element be taken out of the game to seemingly “allow” women to participate? To me it is akin to slide tackles being illegal in women’s football. There is some debate within women’s ice hockey as to whether bodychecking should be introduced. One strange line of argument cites the risk of injury for potential young female players- concerns that do not seem to be afforded to their male counterparts. Views like these help perpetuate the image that girls are more delicate and feeble than their male peers. Some perhaps rightly argue that the game itself benefits from the omission of such a brutal practice, but this misses the point. When a rule is different in a sport for women, it reinforces the stereotype that the women’s game is a watered-down version of the “full” male game.
Ice Hockey is not the only sport to make the game “easier” for women. Female golfers play off a ladies tee that shortens the distance to the hole. Even if the often exaggerated physiological differences between men and women are taken into account, why should this be the case when women are competing against women? Women compete in the heptathlon rather than the decathlon and end their event with an 800m race rather than a 1500m race. Does anyone doubt that Denise Lewis could have handled another 3 events and an extra 700 metres? The ladies singles and doubles at every grand slam tennis event consist of the best of three sets rather than five. Once again the question is begged as to whether anyone seriously doubts that Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova could play for the extra amount of time? Whether expectations move up for women or down for men (i.e. men compete in a heptathlon or three set matches), men and women need to compete on parallel and equal terms.
Some sports reinforce gender stereotypes in more subtle ways. Gymnastics is an event where, with the exception of the floor and the vault (which are different in their requirements for both sexes), both women and men compete in a different set of events. Predictably women compete in four events that demonstrate suppleness and finesse, such as the beam and the parallel bars whereas men compete in six events that demonstrate strength and power, such as the pommel horse and the still rings. Beach Volleyball, before changing its regulations prior to London 2012, has been far less subtle in its exploitation of its female participants. The regulations regarding the length of a female player’s shorts were set at 7cm to attract a young male demographic to the games and turn the sport into a “sexy” attraction. Money drove the idea to regulate the uniforms and it drove the idea to change, as financial gains are undoubtedly to be made in countries with more “conservative” cultures- the reason cited by the FIVB for the change in rules. Beach Volleyball certainly has a high profile for a niche sport, which is in part due to the attention it garnered from its uniform regulations. Its development will though always be tainted by the wanton “sexploitation” it employed to get there.
Although not possible in all sports, male and female events should be combined on a more regular basis. The Athletics European Team Championships is an example of this working at an elite level. Although not the most important event on the calendar, national teams comprise of an equal amount of men and women, and all athletes contributions are weighted equally. Women’s sport (and sport in general) would benefit greatly from others following this lead. The combination of the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup in golf and the Davis and Fed Cups in tennis would add an extra element to international team tennis events. The Ryder Cup idea may seem radical, but would people really lose interest in the competition if women were included? I would argue to the contrary, it would markedly increase the amount of female interest in the sport, and consequently boost the amount of revenue in the game.
It is certainly not all doom and gloom for women’s sport in the UK in particular; the England cricket team have been awarded central contracts, Lizzy Yarnold is an inspiration to all and Jess Ennis is a fantastic role model for all girls and boys. However, sport is a reflection of the culture in which it exists and global society is still a long way from genuine gender equality. Even sports such as tennis, athletics and gymnastics, where female athletes are celebrated, have gendered assumptions regarding the abilities of the participants. The female body should not be treated as if it is an impediment that prevents athletes from competing over a certain distance, for a certain amount of time or in a certain event. Women need to able to compete on a parallel basis and integrate with men’s sport where possible if sport is to free itself from embedded sexism. There needs to be a realisation that seemingly innocuous laws such as lighter shot puts, shorter courses for the Biathlon and the aforementioned ban on bodychecking encourage and reinforce gender stereotypes. Of course, the issue of gender inequality is not a problem that sport alone can fix, but a long hard look at the issue is overdue.