Healthy Competition?

Sadly, there are few sports where women compete directly with men: horse racing and, in the Olympics, sailing and equestrian. The Irish Grand National has been won by female jockeys three times – Mrs Ann Ferris (1984), Miss Nina Carberry in (2011) and Katie Walsh in 2015. In horse racing, you need to be strong for your weight, but it’s also about knowing the horse and making the right tactical decisions. Women also compete with men, if sporadically, in motorsports. Jenny Tinmouth has achieved many firsts for women in motorcycle racing and in 2010 scored the most points in the British Supersport Cup Championship.[1] I am sure that many women are put off motorbikes because they don’t sell small light bikes in this country – when you’ve dropped one on the floor it’s damned embarrassing (and annoying) to have to wait for a guy to come along and help you pick it up again. Trust me, I’ve been there and I know others who have too.

And there are sports where women may be better, or at least as good as, men. Shooting is one of those sports but it gets complicated. In biathlons, the top women are more accurate than the top men, but the men are faster – which may be about ability or a difference in trade-off between accuracy and speed.[2] But some claim that women are better offhand shooters because it’s not about muscle – it’s about anchoring your elbow in your hip and stability. So with my relatively wide hips and short stature I should be world-beating! A Wall Street Journal article back in 2012 noted that women competed with men in Olympic shooting until Margaret Thompson Murdock tied for gold at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Even more shockingly, but it was 1938, when Helene Mayer beat the men’s US fencing champion, her title was taken away and men-women competitions were banned – the reason being that she won in an unfair competition because men can’t go “all out” competing against a woman.[3] Are all the excuses just because men are running scared? Is being beaten by women at sport, perhaps considered one of the last bastions of male dominance in modern times, a step too far for some men?

Where there’s a will there’s a way. There are ways to even the playing field somewhat. Golf, at least when played by amateurs, has a handicap system. And yet they still have separate tees for women as opposed to men. Why is this necessary? Why can’t any differences in ability be encompassed within the existing handicap system? Various combat sports such as boxing, judo, and wrestling, have different levels for different weights, thus evening out the body mass issue. In these cases, the sport is about skill rather than pure physical strength, so evening out the advantage of size is sensible. In some sports, being light is a real advantage. Ski jumping is one example but participants with a BMI less than 20 are handicapped with shorter skis. Some suggest that women were excluded from Olympic ski jumping until 2014, and still can’t compete with them, “because they might kick-ass”. Lisa Wade points out that at the time the future of women’s ski-jumping in the Olympics was being debated, the world record holder on the to-be Olympic track was a woman: Lindsey Van. [4]    

So what would happen if girls competed with boys in more sports? I accept that based on current relative performances, women wouldn’t often get to compete in the higher echelons (and Niamh expressed the view that in future she would opt for women’s football because she would want to play at highest level possible – and who wouldn’t). But would playing with the boys push girls to perform better, or would removing the cachet of being elite women in their chosen sports lead women ultimately to perform less well? Or would we see women seeking sports and games in which they can truly excel rather than settling for second best? Would we see more or less women playing sports and engaging in exercise? This is an important factor given that it is widely acknowledged that the level of women’s participation in sporting activities needs to be improved (only 31% of women take part once a week compared to 41% of men[5]), since it is important for both physical health and mental wellbeing.  

 I’d love to hear your views…