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  • Writer's pictureSarah Rose

Sexism in Sport

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"You're fast now, but you're young," one of my high school teachers told me, "girls always slow down as they grow up." I was a Sophomore, barely fifteen. So far, I'd had a good amount of running success, in a big-fish-small-pond sort of way. As far as growing into womanhood, I'd already done a lot of developing; I'd stopped getting taller, developed breasts, gotten my period (once), and didn't really understand what he meant. As far as I was concerned, I was done growing up, physically at least.

The notion that girls slow down when they reach womanhood came at me from more than one direction, especially once I reached the college stage. We were encouraged to remain small, the lightest, most girlish bodies the ones that succeeded, temporarily. Woman in their early twenties almost always encounter a predictable performance plateau, one that men of the same age don't experience. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor. Sports have been around a long time, but women participating in sport is something that's still relatively new.

I remember watching the 2010 Winter Olympics during one of my class periods in high school. Women were playing hockey and speed skating and snowboarding. They were strong and fierce, but I noticed that one of my favorite winter sports, ski jumping, was only done by men (2014 would be the first year women's ski jumping was included in the Olympics). As we sat watching, one of my classmates remarked on a woman's hockey team, joking about how the players looked "manly." The bulk of televised woman's sport was dedicated to figure skating, where the athletes were small and childlike and dainty. The world liked small, childlike, dainty women, I learned. Not just in sport, but everywhere.

The gender pay gap in professional sports has been widely debated. Women's sports earn less overall, we hear, so they shouldn't get paid as much as the men. Women are not usually the ones deciding what sports to promote and air, though. Phenomenal athleticism will always draw spectators, and according to this country-wide study done by Nielsen, 84% of sports fans are interested in women's sports.

I don't watch women's basketball anymore, but I don't watch any basketball. Growing up, I played basketball for nine years, and loved watching other women play. I liked learning from them, and I liked the possibility of reaching another level athletically. One year, my parents took a friend and I to a woman's basketball game at the University of Minnesota, and it remains one of my favorite childhood memories. Watching women succeed athletically helped me believe that I could succeed athletically, too.

Since I've been a runner for nearly two decades, I've follow women's running closely, more closely than I've ever followed men. And now, since I primarily run ultramarathons, I watch and learn from professionals in the ultra realm as well. I can admire their strength, learn from their mistakes, and even compete against them. But so many women runners, even older women, still struggle with their internalized notion of what a woman should look like. Girls always slow down as they grown up sounds a lot like women aren't as good as girls, youth is better than age, the best you'll ever be is now. What a sick, defeatist lie.

It's difficult to unwind the sexism in sport because we exist in a semi-sexist society that glorifies female youth. While men are allowed to age into better looks and status, women lose social capital as they age for no good reason. I once dated a man ten years my senior who refused to date women his own age, as if the naiveite of youth is something to capitalize on. I've heard men comment on the bodies of professional women athletes, as if Simon Biles cares that anyone thinks she's "too muscular." I've heard people question women who happen to be mothers and also professional athletes, as if an athletic career cannot possibly coexist with motherhood, despite thousands of professional male athletes fathering thousands of children every year.

It's difficult to unwind the sexism in sport without getting angry, too, because I've seen it and heard it and internalized it plenty. From male coaches nitpicking developing bodies to expectations of continual progress despite the well-known fact of the female plateau, to lining up on the starting line of an ultramarathon and seeing a few scattered women in a sea of men. Are women not interested in sport, or are they taught not to be? Are women uninterested in competing, or is something keeping them away?

One Saturday a few years ago, my friend Alex and I were running up one of our favorite mountains, Mount Wilson. We were doing a double summit, climbing nearly 8,000 feet over 26 miles. Halfway up our second time, we ran into a group of men who were on their way down, "You keep up with him?" one of them asked me, an innocent enough question. I didn't have time to respond before Alex replied, "No bro, I barely keep up with her." The guy looked at me sideways and I didn't say a thing.

It's useful to let actions do the talking, to prove to any derisive or cynical thinkers that women are strong, too. But the more you hear that women aren't as strong, aren't as fast, aren't as capable as men, the more it feels like you need to scream, just be heard, which has the perverse effect of sounding disingenuous. Women don't need to prove anything, but the world is sometimes asking for proof: if women were more interesting to watch, women athletes would get paid just as much as the men do. Are women uninteresting, or are the arenas we compete in unwatchable?

According to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, 88 percent of boys report being physically active, compared to 78 percent of girls. After high school, around 73 percent of young men stay active, but only 62 percent of women do. Another report from the CDC found that only about 25 percent of American adults get the recommended amount of exercise. It is not obvious that women shun sport or exercise to a significant degree, but it has been shown that girls are socialized away from sports and physical activity. However, girls grow into women, and women control or influence nearly 85 percent of consumer spending. It makes sense to encourage women to engage in sport both in the name of equality and in the name of financial gain. The worldwide women's activewear market alone is already booming, and projected to increase by over 90 billion by the year 2029. Women aren't inherently uninterested in sport and the world is not inherently uninterested in watching them. But women have cited participating in sports for reasons that may differ from their male peers (namely, community rather than competition).

When I was a senior in college, I tore the labrum in my right hip. After recovering from the surgery and making a return to the track, I struggled to get back to where I was pre-surgery. After an indoor track race, I was walking toward my teammates when a coach from a competing school stopped me. "Such a shame to see you get injured," he said, "none of the girls are ever the same after that surgery, either." I nodded and walked away, a small kernel of rage building in my chest. Why, at age 22, was he still referring to me as a girl I didn't know. But I was tired of all the men talking, all the men telling me how my body should be and what it was worth and how, if I just listened to them, I could make it better. Years later, I still think about that coach, who had recruited me when I was still in high school. I promised myself then that I wouldn't be the same, ever again. I'd be even better.

P.S. Read about one college runner who sadly committed suicide due to being bullied by her coach, read recent survey data from trail runners in the U.S. and Europe, or read about how to inspire girls to stay active for life here.


Sarah Rose

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