Fitness

Spare a Thought for Women in Highly-Gendered Sports

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I have been thinking a lot lately about how sports perceived as “more for girls” are undervalued, even in sports where they dominate.

In North America, at least, the vast majority of amateur equestrians are girls and women, yet the story is much different at the elite level. Since 1964 women and men have competed together at the Olympics, but no woman has won a gold in show jumping or eventing, though almost as many women as men have won at dressage. Dressage is widely seen as the “girliest” of the disciplines.

A consequence of this may have been the undervaluing of equestrian as a “real” sport. No, the horse doesn’t do all the work; riding is intense and demanding, and it requires strength and bravery as well as athleticism, a good connection with the horse, and many many hours of hauling tack, shoveling manure, and getting 400-600 kg horses to go where you want, even when you aren’t riding. The size of the rider doesn’t seem to be a major factor; the key is how well they can manage their horse.

Other sports have also suffered from male flight (the term for men and boys being less likely to enter a domain once it becomes associated with femininity). They include cheerleading, which was a male sport as valued as football before women took it on during WWI, gymnastics, figure skating, dance and artistic (formerly synchronized) swimming.

These athletes all must all be strong and flexible; most compete in close formation so precision matters, and artistic swimmers do half of their their four-minute routines under water. Concussions and other injuries are common. But because they are women-dominated sports where costumes and make-up have a role, they are routinely mocked as not being true sports. Interestingly, all, including equestrian, are places that have traditionally been more welcoming of LGBTQ+ athletes, as well.

However, the most egregious undervaluing of women’s sport this week was at the men’s World Cup.

Soccer is not gendered at the early stages of learning the game; over 40% of all players in Canada are girls, and boys and girls play together on the same teams. As they age and become more skilled, the girls and women are relegated to a distant second place in the minds of some (check out Wikipedia to see just how little attention the women get). At the same time, the most-watched event of the 2020 Olympics in Canada was the gold medal women’s soccer game won by Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Sinclair is the world’s all-time leading international play goal scorer among both men and women, and the second player in history to score in five World Cups (after Brazilian legend Marta).

The Canadian women have played in every women’s World Cup since 1995, reaching 4th place in 2003. They scored twice in their very first game in 1995, against England. In total, they have scored 34 goals. So when a TSN sportscaster gushed about the first goal for Canada at the men’s World Cup the “greatest moment in Canadian soccer history” while sitting beside Janine Beckie, a member of gold medal Olympic team, it’s not surprising this was her reaction:

Woman with long blonde hair and a black sweater holds a microphone while seated in a broadcasting studio. There is a crowded stadium in the background. The woman has an extremely sceptical look on her face.
Janine Beckie gives her co-host some well-deserved side-eye.

We all need to be more like Janine Beckie, every time we hear such nonsense.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She grew up watching or attempting every one of these sports, and still does some of them, so she knows just how hard they are.

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