Years of being barred from competitive sport on the basis of mistaken theories about the damage it would cause to the female body have left women trailing men in most sports. But they are catching up fast, says Ellis Cashmore, professor of sociology at Staffordshire University.
Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Professor Cashmore says: "The question is not why women lag so far behind men but how they have managed to make up so much ground so quickly."
He cites women's marathon running, a sport from which women were banned on health grounds until a few decades ago. Since 1964, women's times have improved by an annual average of two minutes and 47 seconds compared with just 66 seconds for men. Already women frequently beat men in long-distance swimming and also in equestrian events.
Professor Cashmore said yesterday: "Competition has a habit of bringing out excellence. If you turned back the clock to the end of the 19th century, when sport was becoming established, and threw open all competition to men and women it is likely women would be competing at a much higher level than they are today."
Research in the 1920s and 1930s perpetuated the view of women as physically inferior first laid down at the turn of the century when it was suggested the enfeebling effects of menstruation were best offset with "homely gymnastics", otherwise known as housework. Determined sportswomen were thought of as odd, unfeminine and moral degenerates. But this "so perfectly suited general views about women and the division of labour, that they were eagerly accepted as fact by a British society encrusted in patriarchy", Professor Cashmore writes.
The myths about the damage women athletes were doing to themselves acted as a powerful deterrent to others thinking of taking up sport. Mildred (Babe) Didrickson, the US basketball champion and track and field star of the 1930s, who later became a top-class golfer, blamed her sport for her failure to conceive. Professor Cashmore said: "It was typical of women's attitude to sport that they feared it would make them infertile. It was a very common and widespread belief."
It was challenged when Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch runner, won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics in the sprints, hurdles and relay. Aged 30, she was already a mother and people started to think that perhaps childbearing and sport were compatible.
Since then many female sportswomen have become mothers and returned later to competitive sport. "Quite a few in recent times have taken a sabbatical and found when they returned they were better than ever. The Irish runner Sonia O'Sullivan is taking a year out to have a baby and says she intends to return," said Professor Cashmore.
Apart from some strength sports such as weightlifting, there is no reason why women should not ultimately compete on equal terms with men, he said. "It is at least possible that in all sports that demand skill as opposed to pure brawn, women might have been competing at levels comparable with their male counterparts."
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