Musings on Women’s Sports

19:58 Thu 26 May 2011
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Over the last week I guest-blogged at CrossFit KMSF, providing some wordiness to go with the workouts (which I didn’t create) while Kat was away. It’s not the first time I’ve done that, but this time I decided to follow a theme for my posts, which was “athletes I admire”. The list was:

That list is fine, and while it’s hardly exhaustive, definitely covers some athletes I consider important. However, when coming up with who to put on it, I realized that I had a lot of trouble with female candidates who weren’t tennis players.

I wanted the list to be reasonably gender-balanced, and my first though was that this would be easy—it’s not hard for me to list quite a lot of male and female athletes I admire.

But then I noticed that all of the female athletes were tennis players. I eventually came up with an Eastern-European athlete from the 80s I admired at the time for her achievements in javelin throwing, and was happy to have her on the list, but some cursory research indicated that she was highly likely to have been doping. So much for that plan. I then consulted with a couple of people and went with Gina Carano, who’s definitely admirable, but who stands out as by far the least-successful athlete on that list, and who I’m aware of mainly because of the hype surrounding her in 2008—hype that was definitely based in part on her looks.

I know a fair amount about sports in general, although with certain biases—towards tennis and US sports, primarily—so I wondered why it was that it was so much more difficult to find women to put on the list. The fairly obvious answer is that my favorite sport, tennis, is an anomaly in being so balanced in gender terms. It certainly has some problems on that front, but all of its major events feature men and women, pay is equal, and the top men and women both seem able to make reasonable endorsement/sponsorship money.

None of this is true of the main other sports I pay attention to:

  • American Football

    Real female leagues (i.e. not the “Lingerie Bowl” bullshit) exist, but are comparatively rare and get almost no press coverage. Football seems to require quite a lot of infrastructure, and it’s tough seeing this get anywhere, much as I’d like to see it succeed. I think it’s fair to say that there are no female football players who would count as media stars.

  • Baseball

    I have a strong dislike of the fact that there’s a “women’s version” of this sport, i.e. softball. I see no reason why women couldn’t play the same rules as men. If you don’t count softball (which I don’t really), I think the situation here is even worse than with football.

  • Basketball

    This is my least-favorite of the US “big three”, but I still pay enough attention to be able to name a lot of the well-known players. This is also the only of the big three to have a reasonably viable professional women’s league—but I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m not sure why that is. I suspect it’s that I watch basketball as a cultural phenomenon as much as an athletic phenomenon. That is, because of the cultural importance it has here, I’m already aware to some degree what the “character” of a given team is, and it is the clash of characters as much as the athletic performance that interests me. With the WNBA, the knowledge of team personality is absent, and thus the prospect of watching it less interesting. This presents something of a Catch-22, but it’s possible that over time the WNBA will gain in popularity enough to make that less of an issue.

    I strongly suspect that the main reason basketball is the only one of the big three to have a viable pro league is because it’s the only one of the three that’s played at the college level, which are essentially the minor leagues for football and basketball (and to a significantly lesser extent baseball). At the college level the popularity of the male sport seems to carry over to the female sport to some extent, and create a following for the female teams, which creates the possibility of media stars at that level, which means more hype when they go pro, which helps publicize the pro league. I’d love to see college football and baseball for women, although I don’t think it’ll happen. Title IX would have been more interesting if it stipulated that any sport receiving funding had to split its funding evenly between the male and female programs in that sport…

  • Mixed Martial Arts

    Much less of a big deal here, although growing in popularity significantly. I don’t follow it all that closely, but am interested. Here, it may be the case that the women’s side is only lagging behind a little and might become a major part of the sport, something I think would be a positive development.

  • Soccer

    I only really pay attention to the World Cup, and sometimes to the European Championships. Both, of course, are male-only competitions. In the US, women’s soccer is fairly popular, and Mia Hamm was on one draft of my list—but that was mainly from the media hype around her, and I’ve never seen a full women’s match, so it seemed wrong to keep her on it.

I pay attention to CrossFit competitions, and could name female CrossFit competitors I admire, but I didn’t want CrossFitters on the list as most of the readership of that blog would have been familiar with them anyway. It’s not a sport I follow in the same way, in any case.

Table tennis is fairly gender-balanced, as far as I know, and I think I’d watch it more if there were better coverage, but at the moment I don’t pay attention to it.

There’s women’s golf, which while not as major as the men’s version seems to be a reasonably big deal; however, I can’t stand golf, so no golfers were going to make it onto the list regardless.

I have a bias against sports that require overt judging as part of their victory conditions, and this removes a number of sports with prominent female athletes, such as figure skating and gymnastics.

Going through this has made me admire tennis for its gender balance even more, and made me hope that the other sports I follow will someday move close to achieving a similar balance.

3 Responses to “Musings on Women’s Sports”

  1. Zac Hunter Says:

    You did voluntarily leave out “crossfit-like” sports. I know you were trying to differentiate and the common thread seems to be Olympic sports. Still, there are plenty of female weightlifters and gymnasts. Some I admire:

    Zoe Smith is an up and coming British weightlifter who is all over the news recently as she postponed college to train full time for the 2012 Olympics. I came across her a few months ago via BBC and have been following her progress. Lets not forget Natalie and Sage Burgener while we are at it. Sage tears it up!

    In gymnastics, I remember watching Mary Lou Retton, Dominique Dawes, & Nadia Comaneci in the Olympics and other international events. Interestingly, I suspect most of us can recall a host famous women in gymnastics, but short of those who follow the sport, few of us could name any men.

    Don’t get me started on Ice Skating.

  2. Alpesh Says:

    Where you think of the US “big three”, I think of the North American “big four”, which includes hockey. (No argument with your classification. Just giving you the Canadian view.) Women’s hockey is in a really interesting place right now. It has been a full medal sport at 4 Olympics now, and the evolution of the game from 1998 to now has been a real treat to watch. Either of the teams in the ’98 gold medal game would have been destroyed by either of the teams in the ’10 gold medal game. There are women who have played in all four gold medal games, so there has not been complete turnover yet, but the woman who scored the only two goals in the 2010 gold medal game was an 18-year old from Quebec (Marie-Philip Poulin). With some exceptions, the most skilled players are younger. It is very early days for the pro league in Canada, but I’m excited about the potential. Hayley Wickenheiser has the body of work to make it on to my list, but I can see several who have the shot to earn a spot over the decade ahead.

    Then there is curling, where gender balance is strong. Sandra Schmirler (rest in peace) is on the list of anyone who knows the name (and I realize many do not). Four times she represented Canada in international competition, and four times she came back a winner, including the 1998 Olympics where curling was a full medal sport for the first time. To get to the Olympics she made the most important shot in the history of curling.


    This would have been impressive as a pool shot, but to do this with a foot-wide stone from 125-feet away was ridiculous.

  3. mollydot Says:

    How about Katie Taylor?

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