Skating to music from ‘Game of Thrones’, Alexandra Trusova became the first female skater to perform two quad jump and triple jump combos, as well as setting a new free skate and combined total record enroute to winning the Rostlecom Cup in Moscow over the weekend.
Just like the strong female characters in the award winning series, the 15-year-old has no qualms about competing against the men. After outscoring two time world champion and fellow Russian Evgenia Medvedeva in the competition, the teenage skating sensation expressed hopes that the existing International Skating Union (ISU) rules were changed to allow jump quads in the women’s short program, or alternatively be allowed to compete in the men’s competition.
Whether women can compete against men, is an age old question that is often brushed aside citing physical differences. But not all sports rely on physicality with skills playing a bigger role.
The iconic Battle of Sexes tennis exhibition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in September 1973 was hardly an avenue to answer this question. King, who was in her prime, had defeated the 55-year-old Riggs in three sets.
While physicality may play a big role in contact sports like rugby and boxing, it hardly matters in skill based sports such as archery, shooting, bowling and snooker.
Take the case of Malaysia’s own Shalin Zulkifli who gunned down Finnish ace Tore Torgensen in the finals of the 2001 World Tenpin Master to become the first female champion of the event.
The discrimination against women in sports is a stereotype based on prejudice against the fairer sex since time immemorial.
There is no doubt that there are physicality differences between men and women due to genetics and hormones. These include height, weight, muscle mass, body fat and aerobic capacity. Women are also said to be more prone to certain types of athletic injuries compared to men.
But to generalise the whole situation by claiming “boys are better at sports than girls” is just trivialising the whole issue.
In 1975, boxer Jackie Tonawanda knocked out her male opponent Larry Rodania in the second round of the bout at the Madison Square Garden. It just goes to show that on a level playing ground women can hold their ow against the men.
Even in motor-racing, the mere talk of getting women competing against the men is shunned upon.
The last woman to attempt to qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix was Italian Giovanna Amati in in 1992. She tried to qualify for three races, but failed in all attempts. She was replaced by a man – Damon Hill, who also failed to qualify the car in the 6 out of 8 following races he entered that season.
American Danica Patrick, showed that given the opportunity, women can do as well as the men behind the wheels. She has numerous poles and podiums finishes with a remarkable 2008 Indy Japan 300 title to her name. She finished six seconds ahead of Helio Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 champion.
The list of sports that could allow for open competition, regardless of gender, is many. Whether its is curling or lawn bowls, whether it is skating or dodgeball, women can be equally adept as the men in some sports.
At the Olympics, equestrian is the rare event that allows for men and women to compete against each other – dressage, jumping and eventing. The reason for this is simple – the attributes required to be successful was the ability to handle the horses competently.
At the 2004 Olympics in Sydney, Australian women won the gold, silver and bronze medals in the individual event category, a four-day contest involving cross country, dressage and show jumping that until 1952 was only open to military men.
The Nacre 17 event is the only sailing event that allows both sexes to compete against each other.
At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, China’s Zhang Shan won the gold medal in Olympic Skeet Shooting. The event was mixed gender and Shan became the only woman to win a medal in the sport between 1972 and 1992. Shan hit 24 targets in the 25-shot final, missing only one. She also made history during the qualifying round, where she shot 96 hits, equaling the world record .
American football is seen as a domain of male masculinity, but back in 2003 Katie Hnida became the first woman to score points in an NCAA game as a kicker. Similiarly, Eri Yoshida was drafted by the baseball team Kobe 9 Cruise as their pitcher when she was just 16. She went on to join the Tochigi Golden Braves in 2017 after a short stint at the US baseball minor league – the Golden Baseball League with the Chici Outlaws outfit.
Carissa Moore won the 2007 Quicksilver King of the Groms event against male surfers. In 2011, Moore was the first female to earn a wild card entry spot into the Men’s Triple Crown of Surfing.
Just a few months ago, Germany’s Fiona Kolbinger became the first womean to win the Transcontinental Race, a full 10 hours ahead of her closest opponent. To put it into perspective, the race covered a total of 3,999 kilometers through some of Europe’s most demanding terrains.
Earlier in January, British ultra-runner Jasmin Paris won the 268-mile Montane Spine Race, smashing the course record by 12 hours set by a male athlete.
These are isolated cases, some may argue.
Yes, the numbers may be small, but it is a situation created by the lack of opportunity and the centuries long bias towards women in sports. The women’s marathon for instance was not even included in the Olympics until 1984.
Most men also do not want to compete against women, for fear of ‘losing face’.
“Sex-segregated sports policies are supposed to protect women from injury, but they can also protect men from the injury of losing to women,” says Eileen McDonagh, the co-author, with Laura Pappano, of the 2007 book Playing With the Boys.
When golfer Annika Sorenstam was allowed to play in the men’s PGA Tour in Texas, it was not well accepted by a number of male golfers. Not because she was not good enough to play but because they thought women were inferior and thus it would make a mockery of the sport.
While women have shown they can compete against men even in physically demanding events, it is still seen as a taboo.
Dr Roslyn Kerr, a Lincoln University researcher in a paper she co-wrote “Reassembling sex: reconsidering sex segregation policies in sport”, published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics said that men and women athletes should be allowed to compete against each other.
The paper suggested dividing people by a range of physical traits, such as height, body mass or even aerobic capacity instead of gender.
Will this open up a level playing field? We will never know unless the opportunity is given.
Yet there are also religious issues that puts a damper allowing mixed-gender competitions.
Women are challenging the definition of sports and for starters they should be allowed to compete against the men, at least in sports that require skill rather than physicality.