The Thinking 

Women Athletes: the Macho and the Burnt Out

July 31, 2012


Paula Radcliffe announced this week that she will not run in the Olympic marathon because of poor health

MR. TALL writes:

I’ve been watching some of the Olympics this week, and have been struck yet again by the effects of certain sports on girls’ and women’s bodies.

The very first event shown on local TV here in Hong Kong was one of the lower weight classes in the women’s weightlifting competition. A young Chinese woman was the favorite in the event. She weighed just under 48 kg, i.e. about 106 pounds. But she was virtually unrecognizable as a woman of that weight. She was very short in stature, and had abnormally short, thick limbs, and a blunt, stocky torso; her body looked distorted and deformed. Should women be competing in weightlifting? That seems to me a pretty easy ‘no’.

But then what about sports such as swimming? Putting aside suspicions that some of the competitors are doping (see the case of another Chinese girl, i.e. Ye Shiwen, the 15-year-old who won the 400m Individual Medley), just look at the competitors as they line up for the swimming races. All of them have remarkably wide shoulders, with the huge latissimus dorsi characteristic of hard-core swimmers. They look closer to normal than the weightlifters, but are those manly shoulders permanent? I’m not sure.

A third example: the Daily Mail had a feature article about a British marathon runner, Paula Radcliffe, who at age 38 has finally gave up on her quest to compete in the 2012 Olympics because of numerous severe chronic injuries. The photos of Ms Radcliffe accompanying the story show an emaciated woman who looks 50, at the least, grimacing as she runs. So what about running, especially distance running? Not much chance of an acute injury such as an ACL tear, but look at the effects over time.

And then there are the gymnasts, the shot putters, the rowers . . . .

So in what sports do the female competitors at least look normal? The volleyball players are generally tall, of course, but otherwise seem neither emaciated nor over-muscled. Participants in racquet sports such as badminton and table tennis seem fine. Those competing in archery and shooting can have widely-varying body shapes, since the skills required focus on hand-eye coordination.

Note that my observations here are very superficial; I’m not even addressing the question of what happens to people, especially girls, who are asked to devote so many hours over so many years to a single-minded quest to excel in a sport. I’m just thinking about the physical effects of those sports on human bodies.

So I pose a question: what sports do other readers think are appropriate for girls to pursue? I’m very curious to hear others’ ideas.

—— Comments ——-

Catherine H. writes:

In answer to Mr. Tall’s question, if  I approved of women competing in sports publicly (which I don’t), any acceptable sports would have to conform to certain criteria: they would not require or induce a masculine physique, would not include overt displays of aggression or other unfeminine traits, and would allow for modest clothing.  Thus, sports like running, boxing, and swimming would be entirely unsuitable.  On the other hand, events such as archery, badminton, table tennis, and shooting seem not to violate the above requirements.

I express my opinion on this subject with the caveat that I know little about either the Olympics or sports in general.  I grew up with a father who barely even watched football, and as we were homeschooled, without any participation in team sports either–to this day, I still couldn’t tell you when the Superbowl occurs.  I was confused to hear one of my college teachers criticize America’s sports culture, being unaware through personal experience that there was one (I thought she was making a mountain out of a molehill).  Until my marriage at twenty-three, I had only been to one professional sporting event and had never watched the opening ceremonies of any Olympics, much less followed the course of an entire event.  Having seen something more of America’s obsession with sports since, I plan to keep my children equally ignorant.
Of course, it doesn’t then follow that I plan to keep my children inactive.  One of my favorite ways to spend time with my father was to play catch with him, and I look forward to doing this with my children as well.  My husband was quite the athlete in high school as well (basketball, soccer, track), and still loves to play pick-up games of basketball when he can get some guys together, and he has made plans to run/walk a 5K with our oldest son on his 6th birthday.

James P. writes:

You asked what sports are appropriate for girls to pursue.

I would argue first that the sport that is not appropriate for girls today is the traditionally female “sport” of cheerleading. The entire focus of the activity is on how the girl looks, and she is judged on how effectively she causes the boys to ogle her. Many cheerleading routines today are, at least in my opinion, more suited to exotic dance clubs than cheerleading squads. Lastly and most importantly, cheerleading is a significant cause of serious injury and death for girls, as the routines often involve flinging the girls high in the air above a hard gymnasium floor.

Beyond that, it is important for parents to monitor how their daughters pursue sports as well as what sport they pursue. As this New York Times article notes, even “safe” sports for girls, like soccer, basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics, are causing girls to suffer high levels of concussions and anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Why? Girls are not only physically much more prone to suffer these injuries than boys, but they are encouraged to play sports in “warrior girl” style — i.e., playing while injured and returning from injury too quickly. As the author states,

“This divergence [in physical ability] between the sexes occurs just at the moment when we increasingly ask more of young athletes, especially if they show talent: play longer, play harder, play faster, play for higher stakes. And we ask this of boys and girls equally — unmindful of physical differences. The pressure to concentrate on a “best” sport before even entering middle school — and to play it year-round — is bad for all kids. They wear down the same muscle groups day after day. They have no time to rejuvenate, let alone get stronger. By playing constantly, they multiply their risks and simply give themselves too many opportunities to get hurt.”

The article notes the political problem that these injuries raises:

“The bigger barrier, though, may be political. Advocates for women’s sports have had to keep a laser focus on one thing: making sure they have equal access to high-school and college sports. It’s hard to fight for equal rights while also broadcasting alarm about injuries that might suggest women are too delicate to play certain games or to play them at a high level of intensity.”

The article advises, among other things, making sure that your daughter is trained to avoid ACL injuries, and to play more than one sport rather than specializing in a single sport (and playing it year-round) at an early age.

Natalie writes:

I have no problem with women competing, but I think sports involving fighting (with the possible exception of fencing since that bears little resemblance to actual fighting) and sports likely to compromise a woman’s long term ability to bear and raise children should be avoided. In my mind, this means that sports like skiing, ice skating, range sports, equestrian events, and various team sports like relay, curling, volleyball, and softball are all fine. Gymnastics would be a borderline case to me since these girls often train so hard their cycles completely cease, but that’s a question of degree and not kind.

As to the question about swimmers, my husband’s cousin swims in high school and is a very pleasant looking young woman. If she raises her arms above her head you notice her swimmer’s arms, but otherwise she looks like a normal young woman. For comparison, she attended but didn’t place at the most recent Olympic trials. So a high level swimmer but not elite.

As for the more general question implied, I think it’s wonderful for young women to be involved in sports so long as they keep in mind that this is (probably) something they’ll have to give up eventually. In other words, an adolescent cellist might be able to keep up her skill level during a life of homemaking, but the adolescent hurler will end up chasing her kids around the park (and probably catching them!). On the other hand, if my discussions with young women are any guide, the athletes will spend less time obsessing about their weight and gawking at the boys, and that sounds like a pretty good plan for teenage girls.

[The discussion continues here.]

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