13 Dec 2017

What if sport wasn’t divided by gender?

3:49 pm on 13 December 2017

Do we need to think differently?


Tennis star Serena Williams watches a game from the stands.

Tennis star Serena Williams watches a game from the stands. Photo: Photosport

A Lincoln University researcher says men and women athletes should be allowed to compete against each other.

Lincoln’s head of sport, Dr Roslyn Kerr, suggests dividing people by a range of physical traits, such as height, body mass or even aerobic capacity.

Dr Kerr’s article, “Reassembling sex: reconsidering sex segregation policies in sport”, which she co-wrote, has just been published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics.

She suggests gender lines in sport are unnecessary and may even be a form of discrimination.

She believes sport needs to “move away from the strong focus on gender”. She said she was motivated to write the article by the idea of fairness.

“By having men and women so rarely compete together, the assumption that all men are superior is reinforced - there’s no consideration that many women are more capable,” she said.

“Take marathons, for instance, which involve men competing alongside women - you very often have women doing well and finishing in the top ten. There’s women beating hundreds, if not thousands of men.”

She said evidence shows that when men train or compete alongside women, they gain a lot more respect for their counterparts.

Media coverage of women’s sports also perpetuates the problem, she said, as many broadcasters and media organisations believe if they cover women’s events they won’t get as strong an audience.

Lower viewing numbers is the most common argument for why prize money in men’s and women’s sport is often unequal.

“I understand that logic, but if we’re not giving women’s sport fair coverage or an opportunity to develop, how are we ever going to see change?”

There has been historic backlash to the idea of women competing against men. Dr Kerr cites golfer Annika Sorenstam’s experience as a prime example.

Annika Sorenstam celebrates.

Annika Sorenstam celebrates. Photo: Photosport

In 2003, Sorenstam was allowed to compete in a men’s PGA Tour event in Texas. Several male players derided the decision, most notably Vijay Singh: “She doesn’t belong out here. If I’m drawn with her, which I won’t be, I won’t play.”

Earlier this year, retired tennis player John McInroe told NPR women’s star Serena Williams would be ranked “like 700 in the world” if she played with men.

“If the assumption is that men are superior, why would it even matter to allow women to try?” said Dr Kerr.

Dr Kerr accepts there are natural physical differences between men and women, and so suggests an alternative way to categorise athletes - a system based on physical traits like height and weight.

“It would have to be different, sport to sport, but we’ve seen a similar system work at the Paralympics for instance - where how much functionality someone’s body has determines what category they compete in.”

She concedes this is pie in the sky stuff and would be incredibly difficult to implement, but says the conversation is worth having.

“I think we need to start thinking beyond our assumptions. In all the literature I have read, I haven’t found anyone suggesting an alternative model to gender separation,” she says.

“Mine is far from perfect, but it’s a starting point that allows us to start thinking beyond gender as the main way we classify athletes.”

If women were to compete against men, Dr Kerr said it could be inspiring. However, she says the argument can be made both ways.

“Some may also say that having separate competition for women can be good for young girls aspiring to being the best in the world at whatever they want to do, and removing gender division could cause female participation to drop,” she says.

“But in sports where women do compete against men, like horse racing for example, it has been shown that gender becomes less and less important and people are recognised more just for their skill.”

She stayed away because she was embarrassed, probably.

Another ongoing conversation is the public perception of transgender people in sport.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee laid down rules regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes. Female-to-male athletes are allowed to compete without restriction, but male-to-female athletes are required to undergo hormone therapy.

New Zealand’s first transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who has just won two silver medals in the world champs, has been the subject of intense media coverage around the world. She complies with the IOC’s rules.

A rival’s coach told Reuters Hubbard’s typical media shyness wasn’t surprising: “She stayed away because she was embarrassed, probably,” he said.

“When [another lifter] beat Hubbard ... we were congratulated by multiple coaching staffs. Nobody wanted her to win.”