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Sport is considered to be one of the most appealing but at the same time the most controversial institutions in the world. For many centuries, it has performed several physicals, social, political, and even spiritual functions. On the one hand, the role of sports in acquiring such positive personal qualities as endurance, the ability for self-improvement, leadership, teamwork, goal determination, etc. is widely recognized and celebrated across the globe.
Successful world-class athletes are granted not only medals and money but also the elite status in any society. However, on the other hand, this sphere of human activity has often served as a negative catalyst aggravating such dangerous social attitudes as racism, nationalism, homophobia, explicit groundless aggression, and sexism (Roper, 2013).
The ability of sport to encourage and discourage certain behavioral patterns, thereby reinforcing or challenging the world’s political ideologies, makes it a potent yet hazardous tool for those in power (Roper, 2013).
To explain how this refers to the accepted gender roles, it is necessary to define the concept in the social context. The issue of gender is broader than just biological sex – it signifies a set of accepted behaviors that are generally attributed to males and females and can be altered with time. In the sport context, it has always been the popular wisdom to believe that what is suitable for men is not suitable for women for some physical and psychological reasons (however, there is no obvious explanation why a woman cannot play rugby or why a man cannot engage in synchronized swimming) (Pfister, 2010).
It must be acknowledged that sport has always been a predominantly masculine activity. Women were historically perceived as outcasts, who were later granted an opportunity to participate in a restricted number of female sports (Pfister, 2010). Although their position has been significantly improved over the years, the equality of genders is still rather questionable.
Thus, the paper at hand is aimed to investigate the role of sport in bringing equality between men and women (who are considered to remain marginalized) as well as the relation of genders within the field. It will touch upon the influence of international organizations (FIFA and IOC) on gender equality and the coverage that the issue receives in mass media.
Gender Equality in Sports: Historical Overview
The issue of gender inequality in sports dates as far back as the time when the first Olympic Games were introduced. They continue to be one of the main entertaining and political shows throughout the world, which cannot help forming the gender culture of today. Gender attitudes existing in this or that society are reinforced by international sports events with such a long history of actual discrimination (Roper, 2013).
Originally, the Games were connected with religious rituals that accepted the participation of rich and strong young males who had to be as mighty as Greek warriors. Women were allowed neither to take part not to watch their competitions. Any violation of this rule could lead to death punishment (Roper, 2013).
In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games. Although many centuries had passed from ancient times, the roles of males and females remained the same: women were forbidden to compete as they were still considered to be inferior to men in power and restricted in social rights. Besides, the demonstration of the body (especially a lightly dressed one) was considered to be indecent. Sports activities for women were only entertaining and recreational, not requiring real physical strength (as women were believed to be weak both in body and mind). They could ride horses or swim but even these sports were not recommended as hazardous (Roper, 2013).
However, the picture changed in 1900, when several female sports were finally introduced. Some women had enough courage to try their hand at the competition but the sports world as well as the media seemed to stay quite indifferent to this innovation and persistently ignored their achievements. Despite this neglect, more and more women sought to engage in physically challenging sports and gradually became competitive. The first female athletic clubs began to appear. Moreover, some men’s clubs allowed accepting women as members (though they never acquired full status) to take part in tennis and croquet matches, bowling, and other sports (Pfister, 2010).
It took several decades for female sports to be included in international competitions. The struggle against inequality in sports owes a lot to the suffrage movement that led to the introduction of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) that gave women the unprecedented right to vote. The first reflection of their new social status in the sphere of sports was rather unnoticeable (first intercollegiate contests began to appear) and was swallowed by the depression later on as women were forced to stay at home (Roper, 2013).
In 1940, the war made millions of men join the army. This was a chance for women to demonstrate their equal physical capabilities as they could perform military service on the same basis as men, which gave them self-confidence that was necessary for the emergence of the women’s rights movement. It was logical to assume that if women could be soldiers, they could show their strength in sports, too. Athletic teams, basketball, and baseball leagues began to appear (Roper, 2013).
In the 1950s the Civil Rights movement increased the activism of feminists. There appeared a possibility of amendment of the position statement of the Division for Girls and Women in Sport (DGWS) that would allow creating intercollegiate sports programs for female students. This tendency for change was reinforced in 1972, with the enactment of Title IX – a federal regulation that was introduced to put an end to gender discrimination in educational institutions.
Women, who had been allowed to take part only in intramural contests, gained the right to compete in extramural sports events. A special period was assigned to hold such competitions – it was called Play Days. However, this concept did not last for a long time and was replaced by a more standard model. The American Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) – the organization responsible for female sports and sports events – was created to regulate the process.
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The participation of women in sports rose dramatically even in high schools. Before the passage of Title IX, 294,015 female students went in for sports. Several decades later, in 2011, this number grew up to 3,207,533. Despite this, the number of boys remained the same (Roper, 2013).
Title IX not only added sports that women can engage in but also guaranteed their relatively equal treatment with men in terms of supplies distribution, access to equipment, schedule of training and games, health care services, diet, relations with media, and other aspects of a successful career in sports. The concept of gender equity was first introduced, which was an acknowledgment of the status of women as marginalized and underrepresented sex in sports (Roper, 2013).
In the 1970s, national female competitions already included gymnastics, track, and field, swimming, volleyball, badminton, and basketball. The participation of women in the Olympics began to be encouraged and even covered by the media (Pfister, 2010).
Nevertheless, Title IX hurt gender equality, too. Before 1972, the overwhelming majority of coaches for female teams were women (about 90%). In subsequent decades this number has fallen to about 43%. It became quite acceptable for men to train women. The number of women in sports administration continued to decrease (Pfister, 2010).
The sports authorities have tried to bridge the gender gap for several decades to follow. The climax of the gender equality movement happened in 2012 when the London Summer Olympic Games allowed 26 sports for both males and females. Moreover, never before had the USA sent more women than men to compete in the Games. However, even though it was a real achievement of the feminist movement, biases about the participation of women in traditionally male sports were far from being eliminated.
This made the Games controversial and rather tense. Since London Olympics, women athletes have often been accused of doping that changes their hormonal levels and makes them look and perform like men (the transformation of their physical appearance is one of the major reasons why sex verification testing was abolished only in 2000) (Lenskyj, 2012). The debates are aggravated by the media and international sports organizations (the issue that is going to be discussed in the subsequent sections of the paper).
The Relationship between Gender and Sports: Current Situation
The present-day surveys show that the number of women that do sports is the same as the number of men (and even bigger in some European countries). However, this is not as promising as it seems to be. Relative equality has been achieved only in recreational or amateur sports activities whereas in professional sports gender continues playing a significant role. A survey carried out in Denmark showed that only 17% of women take part in sports contests at different levels (as compared to 31% of men).
Despite this fact, a lot of researchers claim that the current tendencies are likely to make men lose their leadership position in sports clubs. The reason is that the number of women over 60 is on the rise, and sports for seniors are quickly gaining popularity among them (Pfister, 2010).
However, no matter how much statistical information is collected and what predictions it allows making, no one can say for sure how much gender is going to predetermine the future of different male and female sports. It should be taken into consideration that gender roles cannot be analyzed apart from other influential factors such as ethnicity, social status, religion, etc. that can create obstacles to full-fledged participation in professional sports. It is widely recognized that such factors are more challenging for women than for men: for instance, girls from poor families (especially if they come from Islamic states) are likely to be discriminated against and denied participation in top-level competitions (Pfister, 2010).
Thus, it would be wrong to assume that gender distinctions have become vague and unimportant in sports. Gender still creates certain tendencies in a whole variety of aspects including the type of sports that men and women prefer to take up. A closer look at the choice of sports reveals a dubious picture. The only certain thing is that women nowadays prefer trying their abilities in sports that were exclusively masculine when they came into practice and were forbidden to women for many centuries.
This tendency has been popular for several decades: some women have been taking part in water polo, soccer, biathlon (which was initially invented for military people), marathon, and all other types of sports that had been inaccessible to them till 1972 (Lenskyj, 2012). Moreover, during the last few years, these traditionally male-dominated sports (that are not restrictive and can be performed by anyone) have started to give way to risk and strength sports that are too physically demanding for women: e.g. bodybuilding, hockey, boxing, weightlifting, etc. There even occasionally appear Sumo wrestlers and hammer throwers among women.
Perhaps, this willingness to try hard sports (that should not be practiced by women for biological reasons) is partially explained by the desire of female athletes to prove that gender is insignificant when it comes to the capacities of the human body. This is one of the most popular ways to deal with biasing and to attract the attention of the media (Pfister, 2010).
Despite the extreme forms that gender role alterations may take at the high level (including national and international competitions), we should not forget that the number of women who decide to become full-fledged participants of male-dominated sports is still relatively small. Neither is extreme sports popular among average men who do not go in for professional sports – the majority of representatives of both sexes give preference to more moderate types of physical activities (cycling, swimming, volleyball, etc.) (Pfister, 2010).
Gender plays a crucial role not only in competition but also in recreational sports. This is probably the only sphere of sports where women tend to dominate. Aerobics, fitness, yoga, relaxation techniques, dancing, and rhythmic gymnastics are the activities that constitute the so-called female domain (with about 70% of women participants). Perhaps, horse riding (which continues to be popular mostly among girls) is the only kind of female sports that is not practiced for the sake of having a slim body, maintaining health, and leading a popular sport-and-diet body management lifestyle. New types of sports (inline skating, skateboarding, parkour, streetball, etc.) continue to emerge winning representatives of both genders.
However, some of them involve so much risk and physical strength that the participation of women is excluded. For instance, practically no women can be found in free climbing, mountain biking, adventure races, base jumping, etc. This is believed to aggravate gender inequality among sportsmen of the younger generation. Masculinity is regaining its dominant position in the emerging spheres creating new demarcation lines instead of those that existed (Pfister, 2010).
To sum up the current state of the problem, we can say that gender still matters in many kinds of sports though women are not officially barred from participating in any sports they like. Some restrictions make it impossible for them to perform on equal terms with men. Women surpass and outnumber men only in leisure sports that do not feature any kinds of measurable indicators.
The Roles of FIFA and the IOC in Bringing Equality to Sports
International organizations are believed to be influential when it concerns forming public attitudes to different aspects of the sport. In practice, they more often aggravate the existing discrepancies than help bridge them.
FIFA is one of the most demonstrative examples. Instead of bringing equality, FIFA constantly emphasizes that the World Cup is a male event prepared, performed, and watched by men, with women playing minor roles if any. Women do not possess any administrative power and do not participate in decision-making even despite their expertise as players of soccer teams. Their major role in such events is supporting male participants (including cheerleading activities) (Machingambi & Wadesango, 2011).
Moreover, women are generally ignored by the media covering such events. When they are not, they are referred to as inferior and sometimes even subjected to derogatory remarks and sexism. The 2010 FIFA World Cup (even more than all the previous ones) demonstrated a total lack of interest in female coaches, referees, and judges on behalf of the media. This is partially explained by the fact that operators, commentators, photographers, and other media representatives were mostly male.
Thus, instead of contributing to gender equality, FIFA constantly confirms the common belief that women are unable to hold positions of power in sports (Machingambi & Wadesango, 2011). Hegemonic masculinity gets reinforced through this attitude. Besides, owing to the media women are often prejudiced as being deviant from classical femininity. FIFA does not struggle against the common stereotype that female participants of the tournament are mostly lesbians (Hundley & Billings, 2010).
The IOC is considered to be more ethical in terms of treating gender. It encourages the participation of women in sports creating different organizations that work on improvements in the field. Despite this clear striving for equality, the IOC has only 20 female members (out of 106) (Lenskyj, 2012).
At present, the IOC excludes men from only two sports: synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. The 2012 Summer Olympic Games became the first significant achievement in bringing gender equality: at least one woman participated from each country (26 countries did not send any women to the previous Games). Now, the Committee actively promotes the policy of including both men and women in any new sport added to the Olympics.
That implies that to be introduced, a new sport must be acceptable for athletes of both genders. In 2012, boxing for women was included. In 2014, ski jumping also became accessible for women (though the number of disciplines was restricted) (Lenskyj, 2012).
Even though the IOC is determined to insist that all counties must allow their female athletes to take part in the Olympics, a lot of critics claim that this has nothing to do with equality. For instance, the two women representing Saudi Arabia in 2012 were not allowed to train in their country and were condemned by the Islamic community for their inappropriate behavior (even though they were wearing hijabs during the performance) (Lenskyj, 2012).
Some sports still have different requirements for men and women. For example, women are prohibited to do certain jumps in figure skating as they are considered to be too physically demanding and dangerous for them. It means they cannot show their strength even if they can perform at the same level as men do (Lenskyj, 2012).
Thus, international organizations can only create an image of ostensible equality. The real state of things is in most cases quite different. Besides, media coverage of the Olympic Games contradicts the principles promoted by the IOC. Men are shown as strong, muscular, mighty, and successful both in sports and in their private life. Masculinity is glorified and widely recognized as the real spirit of the Olympics. At the same time, women’s sports are covered very selectively: team sports are ignored whereas individual ones are in the focus of attention.
Contact sports seem to be absent from the female Olympic program. It appears that the participation of women in male sports is punished for their failure to conform to the existing gender role notions. This creates a lot of controversies and exacerbates the feminist movement struggling against such attitudes (Trolan, 2013).
Despite all the attempts of different organizations to achieve equality, gender still influences the representation and abilities of men and women in sports. It becomes especially evident in top-level events, such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Devaluation, trivialization, and discrimination of women are evident across all sports. Besides, gender differences are emphasized by the media that tend to maintain inequality as a normal state of things through articles, comments, interviews, and photographs.
This biased coverage is aimed to reaffirm masculinity as a driving force in sports. Women happen to be in the position that simultaneously requires attaining male ideals of physical strength (to be successful as athletes) and to remain emphatically feminine (to avoid prejudicing about their sexual orientation).
Thus, it can be concluded that no matter how much the struggle for equality in sports has already achieved, there is still a long way to go as the current situation in the sports arena does not allow claiming that gender differences are insignificant for the performance and results.
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Lenskyj, H. (2012). Gender politics and the Olympic industry. London, the United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Machingambi, S., & Wadesango, N. (2011). The gendered nature of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and its impact on the girl child’s self-efficacy and educational aspirations. Anthropologist, 13(2), 151-157.
Pfister, G. (2010). Women in sport-gender relations and future perspectives. Sport in Society, 13(2), 234-248.
Roper, E. (2013). Gender relations in sport. Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
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