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Question #2: Men and Women in Non-Traditional Sports

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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
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Question #2: Men and Women in Non-Traditional Sports

Brooke Leonard

The benefits of an individual entering a non-traditional sport for his or her sex can be huge – but they are usually greater for society in general than for the athlete him/herself. Being the first person to break into a non-traditional sport would obviously be trying on the athlete, who would have to face the questioning and criticisms of media, fans, and even their fellow athletes. But one athlete’s determination and persistence can open up a whole new world to both athletes and spectators.

In the early 1900s, women did not participate much in figure skating competitions, partly because of the fact that they had to wear long, movement-hindering skirts. But some women did fight to participate. Eventually, when they were allowed to change certain rules (such as the one about wearing long skirts), women proved that they could compete with men. They were permitted to participate in competitions like the National Championships and the Olympics, and soon after that, women’s figure skating became an immensely popular sport. Today, it is traditionally one of the most-watched events of the Olympic games.

Similarly, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning invited female hockey goaltender Manon Rheaume to training camp in 1992. She played one exhibition game against St. Louis before being sent to the minors, but the publicity surrounding her stint with the National Hockey League did wonders for women in hockey. In the 1998 Olympics, women’s ice hockey was introduced as a new sport. The victory of the US Olympic team made the sport even more popular in the United States, and it is not uncommon today to see girls alongside the boys at youth hockey practices.

Desegregating a sport can also add a new dimension to it. For example, synchronized swimming pairs’ competitions usually feature two women mirroring each other’s moves. When males began to participate, the routines took on a different look – more like what one would see in a pairs’ figure skating or ice dancing competition. Some people feel that having both sexes participate in the sport make it more athletic, whereas all female synchronized swimming had the reputation of being too “showy.”

So clearly, the biggest benefit of individuals entering into non-traditional sports for their gender occurs when they successfully open the sport up to other people of their gender. On the other hand, however, an individual entering a non-traditional sport most likely will be forced to deal with some resistance and some difficult issues to resolve.

For example, as we saw in the film “Girl Fight,” one obvious problem with the girl attempting to train to box was the lack of resources for her. She could not share the locker room with the boys, and had to make do with a run-down storage closet instead. Another problem that is brought up when individuals participate in non-traditional sports for their sexes is about how the game is actually played. For example, if a female were to play ice hockey on a team of boys, would she be treated as an equal in the game? Would the boys be willing to hit and check her like they would do to the boys in the game? Or would they be extra hard on her and take advantage of the fact that she was playing in the game to try to score more goals? Achieving a level of total equality is a difficult task in sports where both sexes participate. The ideal situation would be one in which sex did not matter in sports – where males and females could participate in the same activities and games and play the same way that they would play if the sport consisted of just one sex. Sports should be about athleticism, not about gender.

A sports pioneer would also have to deal with the possibility (and subsequent difficulty) of changing some of the rules of the sport he or she wants to participate in. In the film “Pumping Iron II,” the biggest problem for all involved in the women’s bodybuilding competition was the lack of set rules. No one was quite sure how to judge the competition. The judges called meetings to discuss what exactly they were looking for in their champion - was it all about physicality and muscle, or did femininity play a role in the competition as well? Once they determined that, they had to be able to define terms such as “femininity,” which was obviously not an easy task.

Often times, people do have to reexamine their definitions of words such as “femininity” and “masculinity” when athletes cross the gender boundary in sports. Girls playing traditionally masculine sports are often called “manly” or “tough,” while boys playing traditional female sports are sometimes called “girly” or “weak.”

Another difficulty, for the athletes, is all the controversy that surrounds their participation in a non-traditional sport. For example, Bill May, a male synchronized swimmer, was determined to open up the sport to other male athletes. He did bring a good deal of publicity to the sport and was able to open it up to other males who wanted to participate. However, he was banned from participating in huge events like the Olympics. In addition, there were questions about whether it was good that a male was breaking into this traditionally female sport, even though many people look upon desegregating typically male sports favorably.

In an ideal world, the gender of athletes would not make a difference. Unfortunately, it is still currently an issue in sports today. However, the emergence of women in sports has been great in recent years. Women of the past broke barriers in sports such as track/field and figure skating, and women of recent times have broken the gender barriers in sports like basketball and hockey. Now, having women participate in sports like figure skating is not only totally natural, but a crucial part of major competitions such as the Olympics. Similarly, the sports like basketball and hockey will soon become integrated and will gain popularity among female athletes to the same degree. On the other hand, some male athletes are fighting for equality in typically female sports. As these pioneers break down gender barriers, they make way for the athletes of the future. While there are many issues that need to be resolved when barriers are broken, hopefully soon in the future all athletes will be looked at for their ability rather than their gender.



Comments made prior to 2007

Im a 17 year old girl who plays ice hockey. i can keep up n take hits just like any other guy on the team. except one thing im a female so i get harrased by other coaches. one team i play against in my travel leauge even has to pay more then 100 dollars more then the guys to get ice time and this only per hour. Even through this all i still can keep up with the boys and they do get embarrassed when i hit them....grow up boys ... Amy, 7 June 2006



Jen King's picture

Boys in non-traditional sports//son in synchronized swimming

My son took recreational lessons in synchro last year and loved it. He was one of three boys taking lessons in almost all girl swimming classes. He enjoyed the opportunity to build his swimmng skills. He does play water polo in fact against some of the same girls who are in synchro with him.
This year he joined the novice level synchro team at the swimming club. He thought his "brute" strength in swimming would be enough. He soon learned however that he was going to have to overcome a lot of snickering even from some of the girls and overcome the limitations that boys bring to the sport. Muscled swimmers have to work much harder on basic floatation skills. He also discovered that unlike his female teammates he was not as flexible in the water as they were. He also came up some girls who were also just more skilled in the water. Even in drills like swimming lengths he had to swallow his male pride picked up probably from my-ex and accept that some of the girls were faster. The girl also had incredible agility and super underwater strength. My son is still trying to master swimming a length 50 m underwater. He has competed in some meets and has scored as high as 11th but the girls dominate. As they began to see it was more learning him they began to become his biggest supporters. They tease him sometimes and call him the topless swimmer.
I used to do synchro in high school and now I regularly come and help him and the other girls. I love the fact that my young man is following his sisters and mom in sport.