Is Sport a Safe Place for Women?

by Daria

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an expert on sport. In fact I’m only really interested in Wimbledon and the Euros. But I’ve had some thoughts as a casual observer of the sporting world and its opinions, attitudes and behaviour towards female athletes.

Like many of you I suspect, when I thought ‘is sport a safe place for women?’, my initial reaction was ‘yes of course!’. It’s true that the world of women’s sports has come leaps and bounds over recent decades. At the London 2012 Olympic games we saw the introduction of three weight classes of women’s boxing to the roster. Serena and Venus Williams are fantastic role models for aspiring female tennis player with 22 and 7 grand slam titles respectively. Women’s football is becoming more and more televised and recognised in the sporting world, especially as the England team have run circles around their male counterparts in the past few years.

But, unfortunately, the sporting world is still not equal. In terms of actual Olympic events, there are still three gender-specific summer Olympic events: Graeco-Roman Wrestling (men only), Rhythmic Gymnastics and Synchronised Swimming (women only).

Graeco-Roman Wrestling is the oldest continued Olympic sport since the first modern Games in 1896 and has never been open to women. This type of wrestling forbids any holds below the waist so it’s much more focussed on throws rather than trips which are often used in Freestyle Wrestling (a unisex Olympic sport). No official reasoning is provided as to why this sport is only open to men so I’m going to have to assume it’s something to do with women not being seen as ‘strong enough’ or it ‘not being safe for women’. Which makes no sense. All other physical combat-style sports in the Olympics are open to both men and women, adapting their styles and suitability for the differing biological makeup of the competitors by offering different weight classes. The exact same thing could be done in Graeco-Roman Wrestling but for some reason it isn’t being done.

Now for the other two sports, the reasons behind their women-only participation are far more clear. They are seen as ‘too girly’ for men. Oh look, another example of femininity being negatively stigmatized by mainstream outlets! Girl is weak! Man is strong! Girl like pink and ribbons! Men like PUNCHING!

Synchronised Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics are both highly physically demanding sports, with the added task of keeping the beat and in the case of swimming, maintaining synchronicity with your team. In 2012, the New York Times reported that this negative stigma dampens the appeal of Rhythmic Gymnastics for men. It’s not even like the sport doesn’t exist for men: it does. Sometimes called ‘martialgym’, rhythmic gymnastics for men is a small but still very real sport outside of the Olympic Games. A lot of rhythmic gymnasts are recruited from dance and gymnastics clubs at a young age, and these areas are already lacking male participants themselves. And so opportunities for these men who DO want to take part are narrowed due to the negative stigma set by the world. The same applied for Synchronised Swimming. At its core this sport is based around dance and gymnastics and so the negative stigma of femininity carries across.

Earlier I mentioned two of my favourite sportswomen of all time, Serena and Venus Williams. Despite these ladies’ phenomenal achievements both separately and as a doubles team, they still come under immense scrutiny from the media and tennis fans alike. I have heard people call them ‘the Williams brothers’ because they are “just a little TOO good”. What’s that supposed to mean? Just because Serena’s won 22 grand slam titles doesn’t mean she’s secretly a man. These people are thinking “oh a woman can’t possibly be that good at tennis she must be a man because men are definitely more capable of achieving what she’s achieved.”

I just don’t get how people feel the need to question her achievements. Can’t they just accept that Serena is a phenomenal athlete and has trained exceptionally hard to get where she is today? This has created a whole new area of concern for women in sport because now not only do they have to worry about not being very good at their sport, but they have to worry about being TOO good. Ridiculous.

Football also causes a lot of issues for women, whether it’s American football or British football (soccer). I mean has anyone noticed that men are becoming giant pissbabies about the success of England’s women’s football team? They just can’t seem to handle the fact that a women’s team is doing better than the men’s team and they are finally getting the recognition, publicity and air time that they deserve.

I’ve spoken about women’s football with a lot of people, especially as I went to an ‘all-girls’ high school with quite a few football fans. Growing up in this fairly protected bubble of women supporting women I was not expecting there to be so much negativity towards women in football (oh I know, small, young and naive Daria). But I recently heard someone say that the only interesting thing about women’s football is “what goes on in the locker room after the match”. Excuse me while I am violently sick. I’m not even sure how to respond to this if I’m totally honest. I’m tired of women being treated as solely sexual objects by men and it has to stop. End of.

And it seems women don’t even have to be involved in a sport for it to have a negative impact on them. It is a well known fact that instances of domestic violence skyrocket around sporting events like the Super Bowl and the World Cup. Although it is very true that domestic violence is an issue that affects people of all genders, these attacks are specifically carried out by men against women. I have yet to see any mainstream advertising campaigns trying to lessen the anger that is tied to sports and I really feel that we need one.

Overall, sport is becoming a more positive and welcoming space for women but it definitely has a long way to go before it’s as good for women as it is for men. I hope change comes fast.

Hey, I’m Daria: demigirl (they/them) and an aspiring journalist. I love video games, film, comic books and linguistics. I like to write about anything, really, but I specialise in LGBT+ and mental health! You can find me on my Twitter and my Writing Blog!

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