O brave new world, That has such women in’t

Women need to get in touch with who they are as women and quit eyeballing what belongs to men. (Comment on Telegraph article about female judo contestants.)

Oh yes, there is one reason I’m glad not to be in London right now. It’s big and expensive and muscular, and called the Olympics. I haven’t been able to avoid it completely, as it’s all the twittering classes can talk about at the moment. And I haven’t been able to watch many of the events, so I’ve built up a strange outline of what’s been going on, based entirely on reports, commentary, opinion pieces and the regular bursts of outrage when yet another female athlete is accused of being too fat, too muscular, too aggressive, too fast or simply too masculine – or when she’s applauded for her good looks, perfect manicure and nicely rounded bottom, regardless of how many thousands of hours she’s spent training or how many medals she’s won.

Seriously – has there ever been an Olympics so riddled with gender controversy? My sister left a rather insightful comment on my recent blog post about the loneliness of the female cyclist, and I think it’s worth reproducing in its entirety.

Your point about lower standards being set for women is relevant to the current Olympic Games in London. Usain Bolt, Bradley Wiggins and Michael Phelps are given huge titles, ie; “The Fastest Man on Earth”, “King Wiggins” and “The Greatest Olympian Ever”, respectively.

The Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, beats a world record and an Olympic record by huge distances and swims the freestyle leg of the individual medley faster than the men in the men’s medley. She is accused of using drugs. The drugs test is negative. It is suggested that the Chinese are genetically modifying their athletes.

Similar to the example of Caster Semenya, who broke world records for the 800m and 1500m in 2009. Instead of gaining an over-glorifying title people wonder if she is a men with female genitalia. Are these athletes not receiving their due just because they are women???

There are grey areas to both of these controversies, but let’s not get distracted. Both of them contain the same nugget of contention: that there is something suspicious about a woman who reaches such impressive heights of athletic achievement. Elsewhere, white male Telegraph blogger Andrew M. Brown expresses his surprise that female judo competitors “were properly grappling with each other” (as oppose to what – gently stroking each other into submission?), frets paternally about “their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises” (what’s it to him?), and wonders whether “women fighting each other violently [is] a perfectly wholesome spectator sport” (one might ask the same thing of men fighting each other). And I think we all fell a little bit in love with 18-year-old British weightlifter Zoe Pablo Smith when she wrote this fabulously articulate and level-headed response to a few unoriginal sexists who accused her and her team mates of being “manly”, unattractive and unfeminine, and told her to “get back in the kitchen” when she confronted them. And then there’s the beach volleyball players, whose bikinis are celebrated and whose sporting prowess is largely ignored.

I could go on. And on and on and on. But I have a point to make.

Firstly, it seems obvious from all of this – and from the undeserved compliments I’ve received for daring to leave the house and cycle across Asia without a man to protect me – that most of us (probably all of us; I am not immune to sexist assumptions myself) have a preconceived notion of what a woman is and what she’s capable of, and that we react with surprise (favourable or unfavourable) when someone contradicts or exceeds this. Or we miss the point entirely, ignore her achievements and resolutely compliment her on her sexiness. (I have ranted about this on my other blog, in case you’re interested.)

It is also abundantly obvious, from the amount of discussion women’s presence in the 2012 Olympics has generated, that this preconceived notion is being questioned, interrogated, and dragged into a dark underground cell to have its kneecaps broken. Although I’ve spent the past few days seething with feminist rage over every new scandal that comes up (I’ve started a collection of links, but there are far too many to include here – someone needs to write a book about it all), I’m also encouraged by the profusion of confident female voices (both athletes and commentators) that are tirelessly identifying, examining and denouncing sport’s endemic sexism – and by the fact that most of the population of the internet seems to agree with them.  Maybe we’re witnessing the birth pangs of a new era of gender equality in sport. It would be about time.

But what will this brave new world look like? This is something I’ve often wondered. Will it ever be possible fully to eliminate the imbalance between men’s and women’s sport? As long as the two genders compete separately, they will receive differing levels of sponsorship and media coverage. But, of course, if men and women were suddenly made to compete in the same events, male athletes would dominate, and women would become even more marginalized than they already are.

I’m not the kind of person who’s comfortable in second place, so I’ve spent a lot of time arguing about this over the years, usually with men who tiresomely insist that “at the end of the day, the fastest man will always be faster than the fastest woman – and you can’t argue with that.” Except I can, and do. Last time I had this discussion was with a Dutch backpacker in a hostel in Yazd, when I’d just ridden 134 miles in a day to get there from Toudeshk. Perhaps he was right, strictly speaking, but it still seemed somehow rather inappropriate for him to be defending the physical superiority of his sex over mine when all he’d done that day was sit on a bus and take some photos.

My argument at the time was that basing our judgements on the single fastest or strongest athlete is too simplistic, and that instead we should take into account a fuller range of people and abilities. So we can concede that the fastest man is faster than the fastest woman. But what if the fastest woman is faster than all the rest of the men, like Chrissie Wellington when she set a new women’s world record for the marathon section of the Ironman triathlon in 2011, beaten only by men’s record holder Andreas Raelert?

Also, most of us aren’t aiming for world domination. I’ll never win an Olympic gold, but I’m still happy to have set the record for my family’s official time trial circuit (a local 14-mile loop that we race each other on when we get bored on Bank Holidays) against my father and two hefty brothers, on fixed when they rode gears.

When I was a courier, I noticed that, although there were far fewer women on circuit, and although many of those who started the job dropped out within a week or two, the ones that remained tended to be very very good. You were much more likely to find a mediocre male courier than a female one.  This goes for other cycling scenes I’ve been part of. Yes, the fastest person was almost always male, but the overall spread of abilities would have looked something like this:

i = male
o = female

[weakest] ioooiioiooiiiiiioiiiioiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiioiiiiiiiiiiiiioooioioiiooiii [strongest]

(That is, with women clustered near the top and bottom of the scale, and lots of unremarkable men in between.)

The Dutch backpacker was unimpressed by my arguments. As far as he was concerned, women are naturally weaker than men, and the few who aren’t are abnormalities, and that’s that.

I’ve also spent a lot of time having the ‘quality vs quantity’ argument (most recently applied to the Olympic road cycling, where the women’s race was apparently much more exciting to watch than the men’s, even though the men rode slightly faster), and speculating that, rather than women evolving to be better at sport, sport will evolve to suit women, and develop more of an emphasis on skill and stamina than on speed and brute strength.

But yesterday, mulling all this over as I ran along one of Hong Kong’s glorious hiking trails with the dog, I had an epiphany. Rather than trying to talk my way round the assumption that there will always be a male athlete at the top of the table, why not do what I do with all other assumptions, and question it directly? What if we were wrong all along? What if female athletes are capable of being the strongest and fastest?

It sounds slightly absurd, even to me, and I’m already aware that sports scientists will be queuing up to eviscerate my argument the moment it’s published. And I can’t ignore the annoying physiological reality that my two brothers, who come from the same genetic stock as me, are significantly bigger and more muscular, even though they do far less exercise. Maybe I really am flying in the face of evidence and good sense.

But look at the assumptions that have been disproved in the past. I’ll always remember my year 7 history teacher telling me about Elizabeth I, and how her tutors remarked that she was almost as clever as a man, which in those days was considered an impossibility. He pointed out that this was the equivalent of today’s female athletes keeping up with their male counterparts. For us it was as self-evident that men are physically stronger as it was for William Grindal and Richard Cox that they were mentally superior.

We now know they were wrong. Even as late as the 19th century men were arguing that women’s tender brains couldn’t possibly keep up with the demands of a university curriculum (and furthermore that it would be unnatural and unhealthy for them to try). But in 1869, Emily Davies wedged the first determined female foot in the door of Cambridge University, to the disgust, hilarity and scepticism of the male establishment. And then in 1890 Philippa Fawcett obtained the highest result in the mathematical tripos, scoring 13% higher than her nearest male competitor, and proving once and for all that women deserved an equal place in British education. (Although, appallingly, women were not made equal members of the university until 1948, the year Fawcett died, aged 80.) Nowadays most people will laugh at you if you try to suggest that women are intellectually inferior to men.

But will there ever be a Philippa Fawcett in sport? As a matter of fact, there are already several – we’re just not paying attention. I’ve already told you about Beryl Burton, the English cyclist who set a 12-hour time trial record in 1967 that surpassed the men’s record for two years. The current 24-hour record holder for recumbent bicycles is a woman called Sandy Earl. Sarah Robles is the strongest weightlifter in America, male or female (and if you weren’t already feeling outraged by the inequality of women in sport, read this article about how she still lives in poverty). And Ye Shiwen swam the final 50m of her record-breaking individual medley faster than male winner Ryan Lochte. (There are probably other examples. Why is it so hard to find them?)

So just imagine what we might see over the next few years. Just imagine what women might achieve once they’re receiving equal funding, support, training and recognition. Just imagine how much faster and stronger women will be when young girls stop being told they’re too small, too fat, too weak, too slow, too shy and too feminine to join in with the boys’ games. Just imagine how our grandchildren will laugh at us for believing women couldn’t compete with men. Just imagine.

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