I am by no definition an athlete. As a child in frigid Winnipeg, I played pickup hockey on an outdoor rink with wobbly skates, held upright by the stick I used mostly as a cane. The part I enjoyed most, though, was sitting in the little community center building after the game as my frost-bitten toes tingled gratefully in the warm sweaty air. I was never a particularly good skater, and I remember -even in those faraway times- the kidding I took for being knocked down by the one or two brave girls who always managed to be chosen for the other team. The same two girls showed up each Saturday, and they were tolerated, partly because they were as strong as the eleven or twelve year old boys around them, but mainly because they were such good players.
We moved further East from Winnipeg when I was fourteen, and the opportunity to play pickup hockey thankfully withered, although not only because of decreased opportunity, but, more likely, directly proportional to my size and talent. And there, any credible aspiration for sports fame withered in the already harvested field.
In the dying embers of middle age, I confess I tried rollerblade hockey in a local gym, but by then it was too late. It attracted people of my age, to be sure, but mainly those who had already played hockey for years, so it did not go well. There was an interesting parallel to my childhood experience, though. Although no gender restrictions were ever suggested, it was entirely an old-boys club –until, that is, two younger women who had played for a women’s ice hockey team showed up. The results were predictable; they outclassed the men so completely, the larger, older men began to exhibit their frustration by unfair physical contact –shoving, bumping, slashing with their sticks- all, no doubt, to compensate for their lack of prowess. But the women never showed up again.
At any rate, I began to wonder why there wasn’t some way of allowing gender mixing in sport. Clearly, there would have to be guidelines to even out the rink, as it were -maybe size, or weight, say, in sports like hockey, and coupled with a change of rules to discourage aggressive and disruptive behaviour. Other sports like track and field could perhaps be integrated even more easily…
I suspected these thoughts were likely the early signs of an impending dementia, though, until I came across a truly inspiring article in the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/why-it-might-be-time-to-eradicate-sex-segregation-in-sports-89305
It was an article by Roslyn Kerr, a senior lecturer in Sociology of Sport, Lincoln University, in New Zealand. She argued that ‘[…]one way to move beyond problematic gender barriers is to eradicate sex segregation completely and replace it with a system similar to that used in Paralympic sport.’ As she points out, ‘Historically, women have been required to undergo humiliating sex testing procedures in order to compete in sport. More recently, such testing has been suspended owing to the lack of consensus about which traits make someone male or female. […] In 2012, several women underwent surgery in order to meet the requirements to compete in the women’s events at the Olympic Games, even though they had always identified as women and externally appeared to be women.
‘[…] Women are not the only group who receive a poor deal in sport. While weight classes in some sports allow smaller athletes a chance at success, there is no such consideration for other traits, such as height. This means that shorter athletes never have a chance in events such as high jump, volleyball and basketball.
‘Other athletes are lucky enough to have advantageous traits that do not lead to a ban. For example, they have greater aerobic capacity or stronger fast-twitch fibres (which contract quickly, but get tired fast). But it is not considered unfair for other athletes to compete against them, as it would be if their weight were too high or they were men rather than women.’
But, ‘Paralympic sport has been forced to deal much more closely with the issue of classification owing to the range of bodies that compete. In the 1990s, the classification system changed to one that was based on functional ability rather than on medical conditions. It continues today, where rather than labelling athletes as having a particular medical condition, they are placed in a racing category based on the movements their body can perform, related to the sport they compete in.’ So she suggests that ‘in able-bodied sport, it would similarly make sense to remove the label of male or female and replace it with categories based on the ability of bodies to move in that particular sport. In sport, movement is based on physical ability, which is not necessarily linked to sex. In each sport, it would be possible to identify the characteristics which make up successful athletes and create categories based on those rather than on sex.’
She gives some examples that might help with the integration: ‘[f]or example, for a 100m sprinter, the ideal athlete would perhaps be made up of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. Therefore, rather than classifying by sex, sprinters could be classified by their level of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. In another example, in sports such as high jump, volleyball and basketball, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and height. Finally, in an endurance sport, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and lung capacity.’
I realize that this may still be a hard sell to many. Egos are on the line I suppose, and privilege –sacred male traditions might be trampled underfoot. But things are changing –too fast for some, no doubt- and yet no amount of wishful thinking will bring back a Past that is not served by the Present. A past that was never exposed to current technology, current expectations.
But the integration of gender in sport makes sense. There are women fire fighters, paramedics, police officers –there are even women soldiers in combat, for goodness sakes. Come on guys…!
And what do we risk by trying it in a few sports to see how it unfolds? That people might actually enjoy it? That a day might come when children, perhaps yet unborn, will wonder how and why we ever separated the sexes…?
I can’t help but think of the words of Beatrice about men in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? A bit harsh, I guess, but she’s got the right spirit, don’t you think?