independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

I've been competing against boys since I was 8 years old. . .

We need to acknowledge that sport is as much for girls as it is for boys

Laura Dillon

Six years before becoming Dublin's most notorious archbishop, John Charles McQuaid was so outraged at the prospect of women competing in the same sporting arena as men that he set out to veto the first women's 100-metre race.

In 1934, McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College, wrote to newspapers to rally support for a ban, saying: "The Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded, for it is supremely unbecoming that they should flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all." McQuaid succeeded and it would be 1956 before an Irish female athlete, Maeve Kyle, competed in the Olympics.

In modern-day Ireland, women have conquered not just the athletics track but ascended to the upper echelons of society. While female participation remains dismally low in politics and in the boardroom, women regularly compete with men on a level playing field. Except, that is, in sport.

At equestrian events and sailing, men and women compete as equals, and female jockeys are not uncommon – Katie Walsh came third in the Grand National last year on Seabass, the best-ever finish for a woman. However, the sexes remain stubbornly divided in most sports.

Sarah O'Connor, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sports, who cheered Katie Taylor on as she punched her way to boxing history at last year's Olympics, says there are physical reasons why the genders have to be separated at competitions. But in sports where there is more scope for female athletes to take on men, there are cultural and societal obstacles to overcome, she argues.

"Over the course of the century, there has been a massive change in attitudes towards women competing in sport," O'Connor said.

"The reason women don't compete against men is because of the physical differences. If you were to look at the fastest time for a men's marathon, they could be 10 or 15 minutes quicker.

"At international competitions, I can't see the status quo changing any time soon."

There are, however, undercurrents of change in the separation of the sexes in sport. Sarah Taylor, a leading wicketkeeper for the England women's cricket team, said in January she was invited to discuss playing for a men's county cricket side. Taylor, often regarded as one of the best female cricketers in history, clinched an informal agreement with Sussex to act as their wicketkeeper if their second team needs one at short notice.

Sport is littered with examples of women who broke the mould to show they could play with the big boys. Danica Patrick, the racing driver, became the only woman to win a race in the IndyCar series in 2008. Annika Sorenstam, the Swedish golfer, caused uproar when she became the first woman in 58 years to appear on the US Tour.

The ultimate battle of the sexes was played out in 1973, when 55-year-old Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King to a tennis match, claiming a female player could not match his superior male attributes. King won in three straight sets, and later fought for equal prize funds for female players. She also championed a law called Title IX, which banned discrimination in sport funding and development at American colleges.

Yet male-dominated sports such as golf are still tarnished by misogyny. Vijay Singh threatened to withdraw from a tournament in 2003 should he be paired with Sorenstam.

Australian tennis player Pat Cash branded women's tennis "two sets of rubbish", while Dutch player Richard Krajicek said 80pc of female tennis players were "lazy fat pigs".

Before competing in the first Olympics to allow women to box, Taylor first had to fight efforts by the Amateur International Boxing Association to make women boxers wear skirts to help "distinguish" them from their male counterparts.

In November, the International Ski Federation declined a request by female American skier Lindsey Vonn, a four-time World Cup champion, to take part in a men's downhill race in Alberta. The governing body ruled that "one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other" and that "exceptions will not be made to the FIS rules".

Fortunately, there are sporting disciplines where gender counts for little. Camilla Speirs was part of a mixed Irish eventing team that placed fifth at the London Olympics, though she had to leave the competition early after a bad fall.

"Men and women have been competing against each other in our sport for a long, long time and it's just accepted now," said Speirs, who lives in Co Kildare.

"People might think from the outset that horse-riding is something men would have an advantage in, but that's not the case at all.

"Some of the best riders in the world are female. A lot of it is about skill, but a lot of it is psychological, too. I'm also very wary of the type of horse I ride – my Olympics horse was absolutely tiny. A big man might have to ride a big horse, and those horses are sometimes more unco-ordinated and a bit clumsier."

In sailing, Laura Dillon became the first woman helm to win the Youth Sailing World Championship, where men and women compete directly, in its 65-year history. The 34-year-old, and her teammate Ciara Peelo, took bronze in the championship, considered to be the youth Olympics of sailing, in 1996. Dillon's mother Breda was appointed in December as the first female commodore of Howth Yacht Club.

"I'd been competing against boys since I started Optimistic training at the age of eight," Dillon said. "At 14, I won a silver medal at Optimistic World Championships in Argentina.

"Both the Optimistic and Youth World Championships are seen as feeder events for the Olympics. Because I had won medals from both, I was on a high-performance programme for the Olympics. But once you go from youth level to Olympic level, the genders are separated.

"At national level, men and women compete directly against each other. There is no reason why women can't be better."

Laura Pappano and Eileen McDonagh, in their book Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports, argued that for all the progress women have made, the shadow of female frailty still shapes the environment of sports.

The gender separation of organised athletics, from the youth leagues to the Olympics, propagates the faulty belief that females can't play as long, as well, or as hard as males, they said.

Men do, however, have biological advantages over women, especially because the male hormone, testosterone lays down muscle, whereas the female hormone oestrogen, lays down fat, according to Dr Éanna Falvey, director of sports and exercise medicine at Dublin's Sports Surgery Clinic, and a former team doctor for the Irish rugby team.

"Girls get an earlier growth spurt and get a larger hip to shoulder ration, so they tend to have shorter limbs than men, meaning their ability to sprint faster and throw harder is less effective," Falvey said.

"During adolescence, boys get a testosterone spurt, which increases muscle bulk and strength. The male athlete's body can be 14pc fat, whereas the female athlete has 26pc fat. So, if you had a 70kg man and a 70kg woman, that man would have a higher muscle mass.

"Because of the lower muscle mass, female athletes tend to have a lower cardiac output, meaning their ability to respond to high-intensity exercise is less effective."

"However, we do know that a huge part of performance is psychological. Some of the most voracious competitors are female athletes. We all know that if you pick 10 male rugby players playing a position, they might be faster or the best runners, but they might not be the best players. The best player is someone who has the best attitude and is prepared to do anything to win.

"Katie Taylor would beat most male boxers of her age and weight. In the vast majority of cases, because of men's physical and physiological advantages, it is difficult for women to be equally competitive. But Taylor is the beacon – she shows that any woman who wants to do it can. Goliath doesn't always win – David wins the odd time.

For that to happen, young girls need more role models and to be encouraged to participate in sport from a young age, Falvey and O'Connor said.

"As a society, we need to acknowledge that sport is as much for girls as for boys," O'Connor said. "Some parents automatically think of getting their boys involved in sport but not the girls.

"We need to change how we package sport so that it is attractive to young girls and women. You want to set habits in kids that will last them throughout their lives."

Irish Independent

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