Watching the youth Olympics at Lillehammer about two weeks ago, I observe the female snowboarders in awe and almost tune out the commentators. Almost. I hear one of them say, "I must say there is more difference in points between the female contestants than the male contestants. The male contestants' scores are closer together and seem to be of a better quality. Now look I'm not saying it’s not a girl's sport but to be good you can't be afraid to fall and hurt yourself. You need to like speed and be able to go fast–”*
It’s not the first time I've heard this sort of thing. I saw it last year when Graham Cornes shut down female AFL players in the first ever televised female AFL game, criticising their outfits (the same outfits male players wear) and questioning their ability to play because of their breasts, "After all some chest marks can really hurt”. My favourite part is when he says that female AFL players “just didn’t look right! Like women boxers or mixed martial arts combatants there was a discord to the image and the action,” because of course, sports is all about what you look like and pretty girls playing sports ~doesn’t match~.
I see it when my female friends post pictures of themselves mid-workout, and men rush to comment on problems with their form, or condescendingly tell them a better alternative to work out or let them know things to improve on. Thanks for the unsolicited "advice", didn't realise there were so many professional trainers in our friends lists, we're so happy to have you here to guide us. And don't bother to tell me that its part of "gym culture", "everyone does it to everyone, gender has nothing to do with it" — it's part of "woman does a thing and man unnecessarily invites himself to criticise/~mentor~ said thing" culture and yes, you always look like a wanker when you do it. If you don't see the implications of gender in this, I applaud your ignorance. Is it blissful?
In these examples we see three ways in which women are continuously kept from equal treatment in the world of sports. The first is a reliance on sexist stereotypes to explain the gap between men and women's sports, in turn reinforcing the idea that women don't have a "natural" thirst for sports or thrill. In the Lillehammer example, the commentator explains that the gap, between male and female snowboarders, is due to women being afraid of speed and of injury. There is a complete ignorance of the fact that there is a cultural encouragement that pushes boys to excel in sport, an encouragement which seldom exists for girls. Girls are simply not given the impression that sports are fair game regardless of gender, and sports continue to be marketed in large, as a "boy thing". This results in higher rates of male participation in sports, but lets be clear, this is not for biological reasons, it is due to a cultural interpretation of gender and what different genders should do. If the same effort, money, time and marketing that is put into men's sport, was put into women's sport, perhaps there wouldn't be such a gap between male and female snowboarders. Perhaps women’s sport is actually a legitimate investment and could garner just as much attention and participation if given the chance, instead of assuming it simply won’t. Maybe this lack of cultural encouragement is a more plausible explanation than the blanket statement that all men are fearless speed demons and women are delicate gentle flowers that glide carefully along the snow.
Secondly, biology is often used to tell women that sports simply isn't for them. Yes, chest marks could hurt if you're a woman with sensitive or bigger breasts. But a ball in the testicles hurts too, thats why we invented those little white cups remember? To protect your delicate manhood. We also invented pretty nifty sports bras that flatten and secure our sweater puppies so that a ball in the chest doesn't really hurt at all (I can vouch, as I play AFL with said nifty sports bras). Now, lets open a biology textbook. We've got a standard female body, a standard male body. The standard male body tells us a man is more muscular by default, taller, stronger. Does this mean that men are naturally better suited at sport? No. There are many variants of the human body. There are tall men, short men, skinny, fat, toned, little legs, big torsos, long legs, small torsos. Out of all the male bodies in the world that differ so much from each other can we really say that they are naturally better at sports than all the female bodies in the world? Correct me if I'm wrong, although I really don't think I am, there is such a thing as an athletic body but there is no athletic gender.
Third and last, to women who manage to surmount all of this bullshit and continue in their sporting glory, there's the men who automatically think that their gender gives them the qualification to be a mentor to women who clearly need their amateur help. My favourite example of this is probably when a qualified female personal trainer was talking to this girl about potentially training her and an unqualified amateur gym-enthusiast interjected and proposed to train the girl instead. Were the qualified trainer a man, he would've surely been respected and his ability to train would've been believed. After all I do still find it amazing that when a girl says, "I play ___”, people respond with, "oh are you any good?" or meet the statement with disbelief, whilst the same can't really be said for men. I can just imagine one of those young professional snowboarders telling someone they snowboard in the Olympic fucking games and still have someone ask them if they’re any good.
This isn't an effort to give women more help and more advantages in sports, it's not an effort to turn the tables on men. It's not about saying women are victims and we should go easy on them. It's about recognising that women can have just as much to offer to the world of sports. It's about equality, it's a demand to cut the sexist bullshit and give women a fair go. It's a demand to stop ending sentences with "...for a girl” (hey Graham Cornes, I could honestly could eat you for lunch, but don’t worry I’ll reapply my lipstick after, so as not to ruin my feminine image).
Call out commentators, journalists, even your mates or your parents on their sexist and outdated views. Don't let things slide, don't ignore the privilege men receive in sports and start changing the way you see women in sport.
*This is a rough, but unembellished translation from French commentators