Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The fight of women athletes: "not appropriate for ladies"

Women’s sport is “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate.” That is what Baron Pierre de Coubert, the founder of the modern Olympics in 1896 felt and 112 years later some of his male friends at the IOC must agree, because women’s ski jumping is NOT going to be in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The president of the FIS, the international body governing all skiing stated that ski jumping isn’t “appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Immediately an email was sent asking if “punk ski grrls” instead of “ladies” would be okay? The FIS has not replied.

Iain Hunter in the Feb 19th Times Colonist recalls: “My mother, as a teenager in Winnipeg, used to jump off a ski hill onto the ice-covered Red River wearing moccasins and on heavy wooden skis held by a single strap”. Already many young women from Whistler, BC to Park City, Utah are dedicating their waking hours to this sport. The documentary Jump like a Girl (DVD available at link) follows Jessica Jerome and Lindsey Van and their peers as they train, compete at the first Continental Cup and fight with the FIS for the right to “ski fly” (jump off a hill larger than K180).

But then, organized sports and the Olympics in particular have and continue to actively oppose women’s participation into sports as equal competitors. Baron Pierre de Coubert was very clear as he deliberately excluded women from competition in the first 1896 Olympics and 16 years later in 1912 urged that "The Olympic Games must be reserved for men. We must continue to try to achieve the following definition: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as the base, loyalty as the means, art for its setting, and female applause as its reward" In the 1996 Olympics there were still 64 more athletic events available to male athletes than female ones and at the most recent 2004 Athens Olympics female participants still only made up 41% of the athletes. There was not a single female on the Olympic Committee from 1896 until 1981.

See, in 1000 BC women had their own Olympics dedicated to Hera (preceding what we now view as the “Greek Olympics” by about two centuries). Even in the traditional Greek Olympics the first female to be overall Olympic champion was a woman from Sparta name Kvnisca in 392 BC. Let us compare this with the “enlightened” modern rebirth of Olympics in 1896: Women were so excluded from the Olympic’s athletic events, in frustration they started their own Olympics in the 1920’s. Finally in 1928 they were admitted in five events including the 800 meter run. Despite a world record by Lina Radke, because several women collapsed the IOC President Count Henri Baillet-Latour tried to have all female competition eliminated from the games (back to the “female applause as their reward”). Instead, women were to be permitted no races longer than 200 meters from 1928 until 1960. Even gymnastics, seen today as one of the most staunch female sports and an embodiment of a “feminine” athlete was not permitted into the Olympics for women as a team until 1928. It wasn’t until 1952 that women could compete individually in gymnastics. A little over a year ago IOC body voted on eliminating the hugely popular women’s softball from the Olympics. It needed 53 votes to remain, but tied at 52-52 with one member abstaining. Women’s softball is out of the Olympics. Later, several IOC members stated that they had misunderstood and thought they were voting to exclude women’s baseball, not women’s softball (which is like being told they have nothing against you being gay...they are throwing you out for being Jewish).

Though foil and sabre were both present at the 1896 Olympics for men; Sabre for women was only introduced into the 2004 olympics ("Ladies" foil was present in 1928). I recently talked to an A ranked female Epeeist who spoke of her many years in foil. Why, I asked her, did she switch? She said she had long wanted to fence epee but that her British coach has refused to train her because it “wasn’t a sport suitable for women.” Women’s Epee was only added to the Olympics in 2000.

The treatment of women by official sports organizations, most notable being the IOC, is no reflection on the determination of women to participate in those sports (such as the 15 year old British school girl who applied in 1912 to enter the Modern Olympic Pentathlon; she was rejected, and would be dead before women would officially enter the Olympic Pentathlon in 2000). Often the reasons behind excluding women from sports have to do with “appropriateness”, “health” and the V word (any form of athletics that might break the hymen, and thus de-virginize our poor frail thing). Princess Di was the last woman in the western world to have a public examination of her hymen as a requirement before marriage (though North Dakota is probably working on a law about it as we speak). "Intuitively, gymnastics is likely to, horseriding might do it, and any sport where there are straddle injuries increases the chances of tears to the hymen," says Dr. Felicity Goodyear-Smith. (On a side note, for those interested in adding that “little extra” to Purity Balls, the Romans used to use yellow instead of white veils at the wedding to indicate an intact Hymen) Of course in the middle ages it was also believed a virgin’s urine was “clear and sparkling.” Just saying.

Two sports, the women’s marathon and female boxing both clearly demonstrate the gender bias the IOC and other sport’s bodies continue to perpetuate despite clear evidence to the contrary. In the 1896 Olympics women were not allowed to compete and certainly not in the marathon, a race thought physically impossible for a woman (remember in 1928 they decided running 800 meters was “impossible” too). A woman named Stamati Revithi entered. She was denied. She arrived and warmed up out of sight anyway. At the sound of the gun she started, running along the side of the course, falling behind the men. She stopped for water at Pikermi and started passing the male runners who had fallen out of the race in exhaustion. “She arrived at the stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours.” Not knowing the name of this courageous runner whose entry they had denied, the organizers called her 'Melpomene', after the Greek muse of Tragedy. Women would not run the marathon officially in the Olympics for another 100 years.

The second most prestigious marathon outside the Olympics was the Boston Marathon. It also excluded women, though Roberta Gibb ran it unofficially in 1966 after hiding behind a bush at the start. In 1967, an admirer of J.D. Salinger entered the name K. V. Switzer to run the Boston Marathon and was given number 261. What the organizers didn’t realize was that number 261 was for 20 year old Katherine Switzer who had done training runs up to 31 miles for this event (read her whole story here). It wasn’t until two miles into the race that organizers realized K.V. Switzer was a WOMAN! Race director Will Cloney and official Jock Semple tried to physically attack and remove her from the race and failing that, to rip off her number. Her college teammates protected her by giving the officials body blows. Meanwhile Roberta Gibb had AGAIN unofficially jumped onto the course and run the race (only to be stopped steps from the finish line with a time of 3:27:17). Officials said they were just “doing their job” of stopping women from running races longer than 1.5 miles.

But Katherine Switzer wasn’t finished. In 1970’s, she convinced the company Avon to finance her and organized the Avon International Marathon series which first ran in 1978, then again and elsewhere, to gain enough competitors and be held in enough countries to qualify for inclusion as an Olympic event. In 1981 Switzer traveled to Los Angeles to talk individually to the members of the IOC executive board who were to vote on the matter. And on Feb 23, 1981 they announced that the first official Olympic women’s marathon would take place at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. The current women’s marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe at 2:15:25 is barely 10 minutes more than the current men’s record (and considering women’s aptitude for endurance...maybe it will one day be lower?).

Women’s Boxing, however is still fighting the fight. Women’s Boxing was actually included in the 1904 St. Louis, USA Olympics as a demonstration sport. Once officials realized the women didn’t consider it a “novelty act” it was quickly eliminated. Women’s Boxing now stands at the “line in the sand” for what is “appropriate” for women’s athletics, being the only gender excluded individual athletic sport at the Olympics games (since the 2004 inclusion of female wrestling). Illegal in the UK until 1998, women’s boxing has always been a sport in which those who participate often do so at great odds with the gender expectations of society. Sports Illustrated did a poll of readers in 1974 to see if they should lobby for it’s inclusion in the 1976 Olympics. The readership was overwhelming opposed.

Currently 30,000 women compete in 120 countries but as boxing promoter Bob Arum sums up views: "Men see it as a sideshow and women hate it.” (Not me, I still own my DVD of “Girl Fight” and though a pacifist by choice after watching I was “Oh, I got to do that boxing!”). Originally it was announced that Women’s Boxing was to be an exhibition sport at the 2008 Olympics and a full Olympic sport at the 2012 Olympics. The first European Cup for Women was held in 1999 and the World Championships held in 2001. Then, AGAIN, the IOC changed its mind and announced that Women’s Boxing would NOT be in the 2008 Olympics, but that they hadn’t totally eliminated the possibility of it being included in the 2012 Olympics.

For amateur female boxers it was a devastating blow particularly because in order to qualify for the Olympics, they cannot enter into professional (and paid) boxing matches. Thus, after years of training and scrapping by they are told; “Uh...not in a couple years, maybe four years after that.” Amateur Boxing Champion Angel Bovee wrote the following, about this decision that not only affected her, but other female boxers, “Believe it or not, even after all our exhausting work, boxing is the ONLY sport in the Games that does NOT include women. After competing on the first-ever Women’s World Championship team back in 2001 and again in 2002, I cannot believe that we may not see women boxers in the Olympic Games until 2012!” To compensate, the IOC is allowing more women’s teams in the event of team soccer and handball. That kind of sends a message about “appropriate” doesn’t it. (If you want to read an in-depth academic paper about how Olympic TV coverage constantly minimizes the equality of women’s sports there is a good one here)

So remember, girls play nice, or at least that’s the way it is going to be for the near future; none of that nasty hitting each other or making big jumps in the air (the vote is still out on whether we should be allowed to play with swords). The Olympic and other sports committees still seem to be stuck up their....I mean stuck in another period; one in which riding horses, figure skating, wearing making-up in a pool and doing ribbon gymnastics are all that girls want to do. Yes, there are some girls that want to do that, and good for them. But for the rest of us who look in the mirror at 14-16 and realize that no ballet company on earth wants OUR body type; that there is no “Big Boned” category in gymnastics OR figure skating. That maybe having an older brother has made us a little bit more competitive and that wiping out or getting a bunch of skinned knees doesn’t actually sound all that bad. For all those girls, keep fighting. Because ironically, a greek woman named Kallipateria was an Olympic boxing coach all the way back in 440 B.C. And I’d like to believe Western Civilization’s view of equality in athletics will catch up soon.


Wendryn said...

Very good post. I think it's very important that people hear what is actually going on. There seems to be an assumption that women are now treated as equals and don't need to fuss about it anymore, but this shows that there are still areas in which we are not treated as equals.

geekygirl said...

I hear ya on this one, and personally- I prefer watching the female olympic stuff. It's really inspiring watching women excel at world level. It gives me hope for the future. D'you know if there's any petitions for the inclusion of women's ski jump, or boxing?

Elizabeth McClung said...

Just an add on - the picture of the women with foils in skirts IS the British Olympic women's fencing team of 1932 I believe - also notice in the gymnastics picture they are just walking in team sport on the balance beam - "poise and grace" - non of that flipping stuff please.

Good question about the petitions - the sports bodies themselves usually petition the IOC, but in both Boxing and Ski Jumping the FIS and the amatuer boxing seem to be opposed to the women participating which makes it difficult - to get inclusion they would need either to get approval by the executive committee or 2/3 o the IOC 105 members - and considering they are prodominantly male AND that since the IOC has capped the number of metals - every female event or division added would eliminate a male one (so to add female boxing would eliminate 2 wieght classes in the men's boxing) - it becomes a highly political issue - and the IOC often acts at random with it's historical preferences. For instance, only 2 of the 3 fencing weapons are allowed for individual competition each olympics and several months ago the IOC announced that Epee - which has only been done twice so far with women is out - at least until 2012 (oh yeah, just in time for my heart to recover for a comeback!)

Jen said...

On the plus side, did you see where next year Wimbledon will be offering equal pay for equal work?

Sadly, like other institutions maybe the Olympics will continue to change only when they have to catch up to the societal change around them.

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Emma said...

Erm, I read the academic study you cited, and it actually didn't find any difference in the quality of media reporting for the 1996 Olympics.

And whilst the example you gave of the ski jump is indeed unfair, a difference in number of events included for women vs. men does not necessarily indicate a bias; the comittee has to consider to what level a sport is competed at (e.g how hard it is to get to compete at a national level). Most men's sports score higher on this simply by virtue of having been around longer.

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