Gender politics and sport

You might not know it, but the elite yacht racing community is taking a lead in terms of gender equality in sport. It’s a simple solution: all you have to do is specify a minimum number of women in the crew. Since most yachts are sailed with more than one person, it’s very easy for a governing body to dictate how many of them must be of any particular gender.

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Not for the faint hearted, Turn the Tide on Plastic, crewed by 5 men and 5 women, heads for Cape Town (and soon, Auckland) in the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo: Irish Times.

It’s very limited so far, but there are at least two elite events where it’s currently being practiced: the Olympic Nacra 17 class, and the Volvo Ocean Race, which departed Hong Kong last weekend, and will arrive in Auckland around the end of February.

The Nacra 17 is a hydrofoiling catamaran. It’s the fastest boat in the Olympics, and therefore one of the most competitive classes in the world. Its class rules require that one of the two crew members be female: skipper or forward hand, makes no difference, either will do.

The Volvo Ocean Race is more complex. Because men – for whatever reason – have dominated the crews for so long, very few women have the same level of experience as the most experienced men in the race. So, the race organisers have established some incentives for teams to recruit women. The more women you have, the more crew you can have.

Therefore, a team can have any of the following crew combinations:

  1. 7 men
  2. 7 men plus 1 or 2 women
  3. 7 women plus 1 or 2 men
  4. 5 men plus 5 women
  5. 11 women

Disappointingly, many of the old trousers of the event were moaning about this, and initially, several teams figured they’d go short handed rather than tolerate women on their boat. Gratifyingly, there are now no boats sailing without women. Most boats are sailing under option 3, with two women. One – Turn the Tide on Plastic – is sailing under option 4, and they’re mostly rookies.

That means that, for the first time in the event’s long history, a woman will know what it’s like to win the Volvo Ocean Race.

It’s not that there haven’t been women in the race in the past. But they tended to be confined to their own boats. So while someone like Peter Blake did the event twice as a crew member before skippering in it three times, before finally skippering a boat to victory in it, his accumulated experience was only ever obtained from, and shared with, other males. This pattern is evident in the results. Women’s crews simply haven’t performed that well.

Some folks say, well, if women can do it, let them compete against men. That’s a bit like the old corporate boys claiming there’s no sexism round the board table: everyone knows it’s bullshit. Anyway, why does it have to be like that? Why can’t women and men compete together?

It raises the obvious question: why don’t other sports do the same thing? Team sports would seem to be the ideal place to enforce gender equality. We already insist on team sizes, and often in amateur divisions, on body size as well, and age. Gender seems like an obvious extension.

Tennis has been doing it for ever. So has social netball. Why not others? Hockey? Football? Rugby? What – exactly – is the problem? Will players forget where to put their hands? Will athletes become bashful in the white heat of play? If a player gets red-carded for pile driving an opponent’s head into the ground, what difference does it make if that opponent is male or female? The behaviour should be rightly punished, either way.

Presumably, people get a bit freaked out about different body types colliding in a high contact sport. Is it too sexy, too dangerous or both? Rugby’s already dangerous. Would it be any more so? Perhaps the umpires have a problem with it – damned if I know. Seems like a no brainer, to me.

Imagine the problems that would be solved by mandating mixed gender participation in major, male dominated sports leagues and international competitions. The role modelling alone would revolutionise society overnight. And – who knows – it’s nice to think they’d all be on the same pay scale, too. Although, sure, you’re welcome to believe that one when you see it.

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