America’s Ryan Lochte, nine-time Olympic medalist, is rightly considered one of the finest swimmers in the world. In the 2012 London Olympics, he managed to ace the 400m individual medley in the second fastest time in history; forever earning himself a place in the Olympic history books.
But this achievement has been overshadowed by something entirely unexpected: A few days after Lochte’s stunning victory, a tiny woman from the female swimming competition managed to beat his record-breaking pace in the last 50m.
Amidst accusations of “doping” and cheating (and ugly comparisons to the 1996 doping scandal involving Irish swimmer Michelle Smith) one question is being carefully tiptoed around: If women are now competing at the same level as men, why do we still separate their sporting competitions?
Since professional sports began, there’s always been a tradition of “men’s” and “women’s” teams and categories, based off the assumption that women couldn’t physically compete with men in feats of athleticism. But is this tradition outdated?
On the one hand, perhaps it makes sense. No amount of feminist dogma can overcome the fact that men and women are physically very different – and competitions like swimming, running and weightlifting will always be dominated by men, who have an innate physical and genetic advantage.
If you had a mixed-sex athletics competition, for example, it’s likely all of the winners would be male. The only way to offer women an opportunity to viably “compete” in those types of sports is to make sure the only people they’re competing with are other women.
But there are other segregated competitions in which splitting the games into “male” and “female” categories doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Target shooting, for example, doesn’t offer any advantage to either gender, and yet there are still two separate categories of competition.
And there’s an innate sexism to segregated achievement anyway. American athlete Carmelita Jeter might be considered “the fastest woman in the world” but what does that make her outside of that gender divide?
Perhaps she’s “one of the two hundred fastest people in the world” when compared side-by-side with male athletes? But perhaps she’s not even that. In terms of “equality” in sports, there’s no such thing.
This is the reason why male sportsmen – footballers, soccer players, athletes – command more money and attention than their female counterparts. Men are perceived to be competing to be “the best in the world.” So where does that leave those competing in the female-only category? Are these women competing to be “the best of what’s left”?
The reason women’s sports are never taken as seriously as men’s is because there’s a perception that women’s sports are simply not as “important” as men’s - and as long as there’s segregation between male and female athletes, that will continue.
So maybe it’s time to end it. In fact, maybe we’re long overdue in dividing sporting competitions between “male” and “female” competitions. After all, every single day we’re bombarded with the concept of male and female “equality” at home, in the workplace – even in the bedroom.
Surely those same standards should be maintained in sports - especially now, with the gap in male and female athletic performance rapidly shrinking.
After all, last week saw arguably the “fastest swimmer in the world” (a man, of course) bested by a woman – and that’s significant. That means we might be on the brink of female athletes no longer competing to be the “best woman” in a sport, but simply to be “the best.”
Getting rid of male and female segregation in sports makes a lot of sense in other ways, too. Take South Africa’s gold medalist Caster Semenya, who was forced to take a “gender test” after dominating the 800m in the 2009 IAAF World Championships. If men and women competed against each other, instead of in segregated competitions, there would be no need to question whether transwomen had an “unfair competitive advantage” or not; and no need to expose them to scrutiny in the public media.
And perhaps most importantly of all, if men and women competed side by side, it might help chip away at the notion of women being the “fairer sex” and weaker, or less capable than men. Because whatever way you look at it, that’s the underlying insinuation in creating separate “women’s” competitions.
But perhaps I’m biased. The reason I have such a pragmatic outlook on female equality is because, growing up, I competed in one of the only sports in which men and women do compete side by side – equestrianism.
In dressage, eventing, showjumping and cross-country, men and women compete on equal terms, in the same competitions. That instilled in me, from a very early age, the idea that anything a man could do, a woman could do just as well – if not better. But only if she actually could do it.
I think this kind of attitude is why my sister – nothing short of Olympic standard as a horsewoman – went on to carve out an incredibly successful career in the male-dominated world of finance. Because she could beat men on the showground, she never allowed herself to be held back by the “glass ceiling” or “the patriarchy” or any of the dozens of other reasons so-called feminists spoon feed women to explain why they’re not as successful as men.
If women want equality with men, they’ve got to start by competing in the same competitions – and while that begins with sports and athletics, I think those “competitions” ultimately extend to the boardroom, the ballot box and beyond.