“Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.” Serena Williams (pictured above) was replying via Twitter to John McEnroe’s impolitic remark that if she ventured to play tennis against men she would be “like, 700” in the rankings.
McEnroe’s statements actually were “factually based.” At least in the way evolution is a factually based. It’s so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter our understanding of it substantially. Similarly, it appears self-evident that a female athlete, no matter how proficient, could be accomplished enough to beat an equivalently proficient male, less still beat a man of her own rank. Williams versus Andy Murray?
Serena gave her own assessment of such a match in 2013 on US television’s David Letterman Show: “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes.” She was more confident as an 18-year-old in 1999 when she claimed: “I can beat the men,” and asked for a wild card entry for the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart, then one of the elite tournaments on the men’s circuit. Her entry didn’t materialize.
Yet in sports in which women are allowed to compete against men, they’ve fared quite well. In equestrianism, for example, women and men compete on equal terms in a completely gender-integrated contest: Whether in show jumping, three-day eventing, dressage, enduring and driving disciplines, women regularly beat men. In sailing too, there is integration in solo ocean racing (though, since 1988 women compete in a separate category in Olympic sailing events). There are other sports in which women and men participate such as ultra-marathoning, curling and climbing, but none of these is what we’d call a major sport.
Marathon running is a major sport and up till 2011, women were allowed to run in the same event as men, at least in the city marathons. There were two competitions with the first women home receiving a separate accolade, but, for practical purposes, women ran alongside men. Then the London Marathon, presumably at the behest of television, splintered the races so that female runners started before the men.
In 2003, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe finished the London Marathon in 2:15.25 seconds. The time has not been bettered by any woman since. Running against men, it seems, brought women to their mettle and their performances reflected this. What if they’d have been allowed to continue running with men? We can probably guess they’d never have got on even terms with men. But Radcliffe’s best time would almost certainly have been beaten, several times over.
The Best of Us
Sport has, since the 19th century, been based on the unarguable maxim that competition brings the athletic best out of us. Striving to win something by establishing superiority over others is a sure-fire way of reaching our limits. So, the question we asked of marathons stands with tennis: How would the world’s number one female fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been playing competitively against men for the past 100 years?
Again, many will argue that the results would be basically the same, the support this time coming from the copious amount of evidence on the physical differences between the sexes — that is, differences which do not refer to social or cultural influences. There are differences in, for example, adipose tissue, respiratory volumes, activity of sweat glands and other areas, but there is also similarity: Women’s bodies respond to training in the same way as men’s. It’s possible that women can close the gap in strength to within 5% — crucial in some though not all sports.
You can probably guess where I am going with this. Say we could turn the clocks back a 100 years and dissolve the distinction between men’s and women’s — or to use a term tennis still favors, ladies’ — competition at Wimbledon and elsewhere, where would we be now? It’s likely that female tennis players would be, at first, annihilated, then well beaten, and perhaps then edged out by men. For how long? Sixty years? Maybe longer. But what about today?
It’s misleading comparing performances in male and female events, which have developed separately. Tennis has for long been open to at least those women of resources sufficient to afford it. Only in the most playful mixed doubles have they been allowed to confront male adversaries. One-off exhibitions between the likes of an aged Bobby Riggs and Billie-Jean King (and, before her, Margaret Court) owed more to theater than competitive sport, though The Battle of the Sexes, as it was hailed by the media in 1973, was a victory of sorts for King. This is the subject of a film to be released later this year.
Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” The once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; tae kwon do has featured as a competitive event since the 2000 Olympic Games. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport.
Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men in terms of prestigious titles or money: The highest paid female athlete is currently Serena Williams, who ranks 50 places behind the highest earning Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, she is the only woman in the top 100. Yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically from the original premise that they are biologically different. In fact, it could be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they don’t is because they’ve been regarded as biologically incapable for so long.
It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, but think of the body is a process, not a thing: It is constantly changing physically and culturally, as our personal perceptions. Sporting performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course.
Athletes, in particular Caster Semenya, have complicated the traditional male-female binary. In 2009, testosterone testing was introduced to identify cases where testosterone levels were elevated above an arbitrary level, a condition termed hyperandrogenism. Semenya was excluded until 2015, when the rule was reversed and she returned. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games but, at the last minute, successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that there was insufficient evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance. Athletics’ governing organization, the IAAF, is due next month to deliver a clarification on this issue.
In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organize sports into women’s and men’s events, just as it’s a convention to award Oscars for the “best actor,” a man, and “best actress,” a term that’s still used to describe the best female actor.
The Second Sex
There can be no argument about the fact that the experience of women in sports virtually replicates their more general experience. They have been seen and treated as not only different to men, but also inferior in many respects. Historically, women’s position has been subordinate to that of men. They have been systematically excluded from high-ranking, prestigious jobs, made to organize their lives around domestic or private priorities, while men have busied themselves in the public spheres of industry and commerce.
Being the breadwinner, the male has occupied a central position in the family and has tended to use women for supplementary incomes only, or, more importantly, as unpaid homeworkers, making their contribution appear peripheral. Traditionally, females have been encouraged to seek work, but only in the short term: Women’s strivings should be toward getting married, bearing children and raising a family.
Since the late 1960s and the advent of legal abortion and reliable contraception, women in the West have been able to exercise much more choice in their own fertility and this has been accompanied by feminist critiques of male dominance. Studies showed wide discrepancies in earning power and this prompted legislation on both sides of the Atlantic designed to ensure equality in incomes for comparable jobs.
One of the loudest cries of feminists was about the abuses of the female body: Women, it was argued, have not had control over their own bodies; they have been appropriated by men, not only for working, but for display. “Sex objects” were how many women described themselves, ogled at by men and utilized, often dispassionately.
Against this, they recoiled. Even today, at practically any tennis tournament, the media will almost certainly gravitate toward the best-looking rather than best player. Maria Sharapova, for instance, earns about $20m per year from commercial endorsements. Eugenie Bouchard, ranked only 61st in the world, makes nearly $6m a year from ads, suggesting aesthetics often outweigh sports performance for advertisers. Danica Patrick, the stock car racing driver, earns around $6m from endorsements, while cage fighter Ronda Rousey makes a meager $4m from advertising.
Women are underrepresented in politics compared to their total number in the population. They consistently earn less than their equivalent males and are increasingly asked to work part-time. Despite recent changes in the number of places in higher education occupied by women, they tend to opt for subjects, like sociology and art, that won’t necessarily guarantee them jobs in science and industry. When they do penetrate the boundaries of the professions, they find that having to compete in what is, to all intents and purposes, a man’s world, has its hidden disadvantages — what many call the glass ceiling.
Women’s experience has been one of denial: They simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because of a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were considered too frail to withstand the physical exertions of sport. Then they were warned that their reproductive capacities would be harmed by exercise. They were even told to beware of virilization — the development of male physical characteristics, such as muscle bulk, facial hair and a deep voice. Historically, women who excelled at, or even participated in, sports were called “mannish” and regarded as unnatural. Even as recently as 1967, when Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (she applied under “K. V. Switzer”), she was pilloried and, because of her run, the Amateur Athletics Union barred women from all competitions with male runners.
Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the very few areas where the gates have been recently opened — the marathon being the obvious example — women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power.
The vast majority of events need fineness of judgment, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation; women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what many people believe about them: In sports as in life, women will simply never catch up.