I have been thinking a lot lately about how sports perceived as “more for girls” are undervalued, even in sports where they dominate.
In North America, at least, the vast majority of amateur equestrians are girls and women, yet the story is much different at the elite level. Since 1964 women and men have competed together at the Olympics, but no woman has won a gold in show jumping or eventing, though almost as many women as men have won at dressage. Dressage is widely seen as the “girliest” of the disciplines.
A consequence of this may have been the undervaluing of equestrian as a “real” sport. No, the horse doesn’t do all the work; riding is intense and demanding, and it requires strength and bravery as well as athleticism, a good connection with the horse, and many many hours of hauling tack, shoveling manure, and getting 400-600 kg horses to go where you want, even when you aren’t riding. The size of the rider doesn’t seem to be a major factor; the key is how well they can manage their horse.
Other sports have also suffered from male flight (the term for men and boys being less likely to enter a domain once it becomes associated with femininity). They include cheerleading, which was a male sport as valued as football before women took it on during WWI, gymnastics, figure skating, dance and artistic (formerly synchronized) swimming.
These athletes all must all be strong and flexible; most compete in close formation so precision matters, and artistic swimmers do half of their their four-minute routines under water. Concussions and other injuries are common. But because they are women-dominated sports where costumes and make-up have a role, they are routinely mocked as not being true sports. Interestingly, all, including equestrian, are places that have traditionally been more welcoming of LGBTQ+ athletes, as well.
However, the most egregious undervaluing of women’s sport this week was at the men’s World Cup.
Soccer is not gendered at the early stages of learning the game; over 40% of all players in Canada are girls, and boys and girls play together on the same teams. As they age and become more skilled, the girls and women are relegated to a distant second place in the minds of some (check out Wikipedia to see just how little attention the women get). At the same time, the most-watched event of the 2020 Olympics in Canada was the gold medal women’s soccer game won by Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Sinclair is the world’s all-time leading international play goal scorer among both men and women, and the second player in history to score in five World Cups (after Brazilian legend Marta).
The Canadian women have played in every women’s World Cup since 1995, reaching 4th place in 2003. They scored twice in their very first game in 1995, against England. In total, they have scored 34 goals. So when a TSN sportscaster gushed about the first goal for Canada at the men’s World Cup the “greatest moment in Canadian soccer history” while sitting beside Janine Beckie, a member of gold medal Olympic team, it’s not surprising this was her reaction:
We all need to be more like Janine Beckie, every time we hear such nonsense.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She grew up watching or attempting every one of these sports, and still does some of them, so she knows just how hard they are.
Maybe *your* mental image of an athlete is someone famous but *my* mental image of an athlete is my cousin, Kathy Noseworthy.
She has always been the fittest person that I know and most of my memories of her involve her being in motion.
I can remember being around 3 or so and she would come to dinner at our family’s apartment before going to practice on the field behind our house. I remember being impressed by all the sports awards she won (I still am!) And I have a clear image of me and my Mom looking after one of Kathy’s baby daughters so she could go out for a run. It was the first time I realized that having a baby didn’t mean that everything in your life had to be all about the baby (an important lesson for a young teenager.)
Kathy turned sixty last year and her Facebook posts are as action-oriented as ever. Her activities have changed but the way that fitness shapes her life has not. (And she’s every bit as inspiring to me now as she has been all along.)
Kathy is a retired Physical Education teacher who teaches yoga at Modo Yoga St. John’s and I was delighted when she agreed to chat with me about fitness, exercise, and the changes she has made so her body keeps feeling good about her activities.
My questions/comments are in bold.
Tell me a bit about yoga – your teaching and your personal practice.
Right now I’m just teaching yoga virtually, and I’m about to take July and August off. I’m going into my sixth year teaching yoga so this is a much needed break.
I’ll do my own practice. I’ll usually do yin, that’s what my body needs mostly. Because I get the yang part of my fitness in my other activities. I need to do yin yoga to keep up my flexibility, my agility, and you know, all of that stuff. And yin does that for me at this stage in my life. That feels the best in my body.
I love that as a measure, what feels best.
To me, that’s the piece that people miss, no matter what they’re doing. They’re so goal-oriented or just like, “I’m just going to do it, it doesn’t feel good but I’ve just got to do it. I know I got to do it.” And I’m like, “Well, if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not going to keep doing it.”
So aside from yoga, what are your other activities?
Well, I do a fair bit of biking. I run but not as much as I used to, because that no longer feels good in my body. So, on a good week, if I run three times when that would be it. But I’d say, on average, maybe twice a week. The distance would depend on how I’m feeling, I never have a set distance in mind.
I generally don’t go less than five but I rarely go more than eight anymore. That’s where I am with that and that feels ok.
The thing I am probably most adamant about these days are weights because of my age (60 and I don’t want to lose my muscle mass. Even though that’s kind of inevitable but not if you want to work hard enough at it. I just lift weights to retain what I have, I’m not really that interested in becoming super strong, I just want to be functionally strong.
So, I lift weights and again, my goal is three times a week.
I walk, I do a lot of walking.
The new thing I’m doing now is pickleball. That’s a cross between badminton and tennis, I guess. It’s a great sport, a paddle sport that you play with a wiffleball. I’ve been playing since last fall and I love it.
Oh, and paddleboard. For me, that’s just a leisurely activity out on the water. It’s so nice, so relaxing.
So, how have your activities changed over time? You don’t play frisbee any more, right?
No, not anymore.
Now, I’m more concerned with maintaining a healthy body. Because I don’t think I would be a very nice person if I ended up getting injured and couldn’t do the things I want to do.
I’m very particular. I gauge the activity in terms of whether it’s going to be worth it to me, and what’s the cost if I get injured?
So, I stay away from things that I can’t control. Team sports, I don’t play team sports anymore because you don’t have control over everybody on the field so I tend to stay away from that.
I’ve definitely shifted from team sports, which is, a total shift because that’s all I ever did. The traditional sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, even frisbee. I used to really enjoy it but now I’m just a bit more of a loner in terms of what I do.
That’s how I’ve shifted and that’s more toward protecting my body. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy the sports, it’s just about what makes sense at this point in my life.
What about what about non physical benefits from your exercise? How do you think it helps your mental health, for example?
Oh, that’s so huge. I rarely take a day off but when I do try to take a day off, by mid-afternoon, I need to do something. It’s a mental thing.
That just might be a walk. I don’t consider that something that I couldn’t do on a day off.
I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have activity as my outlet.
I almost don’t know how to answer this question because I have never not exercised. It’s almost like something that just happens to me naturally. It’s not something I have to force or motivate myself.
I mean, sometimes I have to motivate myself to go to the gym or go for a run. But, generally speaking, if I’m feeling like I don’t want to do anything, that’s when I need to do something because once I move, that inspires me to move more.
But if I sit on my butt all day and do nothing, it just doesn’t put me in a good place.
Once I start moving, I’m like, “Ok!” And I want to move more.
How do you feel about the idea of fitness as a feminist issue, as part of women feeling empowered?
It’s funny that you asked that because I was saying to my friend last week, just as it pertains to lifting weights, when you feel strong physically, you feel strong mentally. I think the benefits there, I wish more women could take that on more.
I think some women are like “I don’t want to have muscles, I don’t want to get big.” but they don’t understand how hard you would have to work to get big. But knowing that when you touch your arm, you feel the muscle, you feel strong, that translates to you mentally. It’s hard not to feel empowered when you have that strength.
Lifting weights empowers women.
I didn’t always feel that way, I didn’t even think about it, really.
But now, I see women at the gym, lifting weights, and they are just so confident, the way they carry themselves, they just like how they are.