In the last bastion of the sexist pig; BOOK OF THE WEEK

The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football - Sexism and the Culture of Sport by Mariah Burton Nelson (The Women's Press, pounds 8.99)
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The Independent Online
It is, of course, American football of which Mariah Burton Nelson writes, but British readers, men and women, will surely find some resonance in her argument that the playing fields and locker-rooms offer the last real bastion of the sexist pig.

Women's sporting endeavour, she says, is consistently undervalued, by a dearth of media coverage, by the portrayal of female athletes as "dykey" or at the very least "unfeminine", by a disparity in resources. Even worse, she says, men try to portray themselves as "better" than women because they are stronger, can run faster, throw further. Girls are "weaker" (sportswomen are usually "girls" or "ladies", though the boys are almost always "men").

This comes as no surprise to the average woman; much of the book is a depressing litany of the prejudice, hostility and aggression that sporting women encounter, and it mirrors the prejudice that faces other women encroaching on "male" territory (i.e. the office). But Burton Nelson also surprised me: women do run, swim and cycle faster than men, routinely beating them in mixed competition - if the distances are long enough.

So men, some men, are frightened. As women have demanded and won equal rights at work and at home (or better conditions at least), the men distressed by the fruits of the feminist revolution have withdrawn into their jockstraps - or rather, those of their athletic heroes, since few male spectators can emulate the feats they claim women are incapable of achieving.

A professional female athlete, or even a decent amateur, will out-run, out-throw or out-play most men. She will only be defeated by her male peers. It would be interesting today to pitch the 1996 Olympic football champions (the US women's team) against a Premier League side - or against Nigeria, winner of the men's competition.

And boys, why don't you all just loosen up a little? Burton Nelson notes that only in the sporting arena and in gay bars are men allowed to enjoy one another's bodies - whether looking or touching. Ironic, given that homosexuality is the idea that terrifies the real men who play sports. She also points out that the pitch (or the stands) offer many men the only safe place to express strong emotions. Tears, hugs and kisses of congratulation or of comfort are considered normal by men in the sporting arena, and normal, by women, in everyday life.

It's not all bitching, though. Burton Nelson celebrates women in sport, be they Olympic swimmers, dedicated runners or members of a weekend softball team. I am none of the above, but her lyrical descriptions of the joy of endeavour, of sweat and of teamwork are enough to make me want to join a netball team. That, or rounders: girls' games, and precursors of two of the three biggest male sports in the United States.

Emma Daly

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