From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.30 :: NO.07 :: Feb. 17, 2007


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Women still searching for a fair deal

The greater the role of power in sport, the more likely men will be more adept at it. They are stronger, that is accepted. But stronger does not necessarily always equal better. In golf, tennis, track and field, swimming, diving, gymnastics, for instance, women are as appealing to watch, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Sometimes, irrespective of how well they perform, women athletes can't win. If they're too muscled, too sweaty, it's seen as unfeminine. Fix a little lipstick, wear an eye-catching outfit, and they're dismissed as glamour dolls without talent. Sometimes they're not sexy enough; sometimes they're desperate for trying to be sexy.

Last fortnight, a finely shot but evidently too racy a calendar of young Australian female golfers was not allowed to be sold at two Australian tournaments. Yet, in what could be seen as a double standard in some quarters, one of these tournaments had invited American Natalie Gulbis to play in their event. Gulbis has never won an LPGA event. She is a fine golfer but is also known for her good looks and stylish clothes. Indeed, she has her own glamour calendar.

The idea for the Australian women's calendar was to draw attention and raise funds for breast cancer. It was also a way to draw attention to their under-watched sport. Some people might think if you work hard enough and play well enough that's the only advertisement you need. Some women will tell you that sometimes it doesn't matter how well you play, you can't get in the papers.

Newspapers are notoriously male-dominated when it comes to the sport section. A study once found that a major US paper devoted just over two percent of its coverage to women's sport in the late 1980s. Those numbers have risen, but not substantially. On the website of a major English newspaper some days ago, there were 17 stories in the sports section: not a single one was on women. Newspapers will argue women's sport is not popular enough to merit coverage; women will argue fair coverage will increase popularity of the sport. So to ensure coverage, to increase attendance, women will occasionally sex up their sport. Some will use provocative posters of their prettier athletes. Some will pose for sexy calendars, which is a familiar ploy.

There is an irony to these calendars, as if women, in a way, are mocking their own stereotype, mocking their male audience, saying we had to do this (pose provocatively) because it's the only language you understand. It is also, of course, players who are just proud to be young and feminine and glamorous. The most powerful reasoning from men, and newspapers, will be that women are second-class when it comes to sport simply because they're not good enough, that the lack of interest and stories is related to ability not gender. Men play football better than women thus it is more watched and better paid. It is a hefty argument in some ways. Especially since the greater the role of power in sport, the more likely men will be more adept at it. They are stronger, that is accepted. But stronger does not necessarily always equal better. In golf, tennis, track and field, swimming, diving, gymnastics, for instance, women are as appealing to watch. It also has to do with opportunity.

Forget less developed countries where women are often assigned traditional roles early and playing sport is not always a recommended pursuit. Even in western countries, it has taken strong legislation to find equality for women. A US educational department study on the 25th anniversary of Title IX ("No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance'') found that less than 300,000 schoolgirls played sport in 1971; in 1997 it was 2.4 million. In 1971, 132,299 girls played high school basketball; in 1994-95 the number was 412,576. Eventually as numbers rise, so will competition, and standards.

Yet in sports such tennis, and golf, women have suffered despite evident talent. When Martina Navratilova took the court, she was too veined and muscular. When Chris Evert played, she was too cold and called the Ice-Maiden. Eventually it seemed women had struggled their way past most stereotypes, had ensured they were recognised simply for their skill, and indeed many were. But still it will be said of the three most skilled golfers of the past years, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak, that they lack personality. Still, conversations on Serena Williams' excess weight will be smirky.

Beautiful athletes, too, are often looked at with suspicion, as if talent and beauty are elements impossible to find in the same woman. Perhaps some men simply find the idea too intimidating. Maria Sharapova spent a hundred press conferences fending off comparisons with Anna Kournikova.

Sharapova is a rich woman because she's talented, and pretty. And if tournament sponsors use her likeness to draw fans, even if she isn't the event's top player, that's fine, too. In a perfect world, women wouldn't need calendars, or posters, or short dresses. Their talent and work ethic would be a sufficient attraction. But it's not a perfect world and if men can use sex to sell their events (supermodels as ball girls, crowd shots invariably of women in bikinis at the World Cup, the Shaz and Waz show), then why can't the women?

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