Sometimes important developments in gender equality can take generations and in sport, it’s no exception. Recently, the Royal Golf Club of St. Andrews has decided via popular decision by ballot to allow women to join as full members after many years of exclusion since its inception in 1754. Golf has always been fairly archaic and unequal in comparison to other developing disciplines, for example the recent insurgency of female boxers at the Olympics or full time female rugby union players. Continued instances of separation and distinction subsist in many other sports to this day, and only sometimes for defensibly good reasons. The impact of the media continues to be an issue, with an unrelenting obsession over female athlete’s bodies rather than their athletic skills, detracting from the need to equalise regulatory and financial differences. In spite of the prolific advancement of sports and the increased spotlight on female athletes as positive role models, their portrayal remains the subject of objectification. Broad social concerns aside, individual sports may frequently serve to aid this trend and it is worth examining where inequalities remain and whether the differences are warranted.
As with golf, Lacrosse has recently overturned an outdated division between the sexes. Prior to 2014, the female competition had a no contact rule, set apart from men having full contact since the sports inception over a century ago. A popular sport overseas, the women’s game formerly relied more on stick control as opposed to body checking, requiring faster hands than the more physical men’s game. The change of rules in this case may well prove to help integrate undivided competition at a collegiate level, and create a more universal audience if people come to expect a similar style of play in competition.
In the case of gymnastics, male and female gymnasts share only two events; the vault and the floor, with women being accompanied on the floor by music. Each event was originally created with each gender’s natural capacities in mind and aimed to provide the best opportunity for the flexibility of female athletes and the strength of male athletes to be highlighted. Accordingly, men have six events and greater emphasis on upper body strength while women have 4; largely focusing on aerial prowess and choreography. I feel this is a fair distinction, one in which the audience expects of the sport, being a reflection of the gender specific merits each sex can base their routines on.
Less easily explicable is the case of athletics, in which the women’s decathlon (10 events) has rarely been internationally competed. A cited general lack of desire amongst teams and athletes has been the reason for leaving the heptathlon (7 events) as the largest multi-discipline event for women, according to Toni Minichello, coach of Olympic Heptathlon Jessica Ennis-Hill. Funding issues and logistical difficulty have culled support away from the event happening at the highest Olympic level, shown in the dialogue between both athletes and officials when debating the possible change. Instead, more open for debate might be the differing hurdle heights between the sexes, as the women’s sits at 2ft 9inches, which could conceivably favour the more compact, explosive sprinters on the field. Conversely, the men’s at 3ft 6inch seems an unnecessarily large margin to maintain, and one that isn’t particularly demanded by natural physical characteristics.
In the Olympic bobsleigh, men compete in a 4 man team with women only allowed a 2 man team. The chief line of defence rests on the explanation that women’s power to weight ratio would result in a slower start and less exciting race. A sport in its infancy, having only entered competition in the 2002 Olympics, growing opinion is emerging that change is necessary and the original division is unfounded. It has been argued this year, according to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) that it requires less exertion to push a 4 man sledge and the Winter Olympics in 2018 looks set to rectify this inequality.
In swimming, women were first considered too slight to swim long distances and the 800m freestyle was only made a discipline in 1968. In modern competition, the only difference is in men swimming the 1500m while women swim their greatest pool restricted distance at 800m. The women’s 1500 freestyle is held at the World and European championships but as there’s no corresponding Olympic event, few of the top pedigree chose to compete. This has been an issue of debate for a while, and remains at an impasse from both sides as some athletes feel that their edge in shorter distances would be ruined if they were to lose the 800m and compete in the 1500m instead.
By more controversial standards, female cyclists too suffer inequality. There remains to be a minimum wage for female professionals, equal prize money or equality in racing distances, with women capped at 140km, whereas men can race up to 280km. It again seems that much of these regulations are representative of a time where women were regarded as less physically able than men, and doesn’t capture pervading modern attitudes to the sport.
To conclude, it is clear that in certain sports, the differences are unmerited and only serve to perpetuate a by gone era. If the general opinion amongst athletes desires change, it should be expected that the governing body in question makes the effort to affect the wishes of the sport it represents. In other cases, where regulatory and structural differences are indifferently uncontested, there remains no need to break the status quo. It’s a steadily improving issue, as with the media’s portrayal of female objectification, but it is apparent that sport and much of broader society remains entrenched in sexist values.