Mixed sport isn’t a phenomenon to be feared, it is something we should celebrate. Allowing men and women to compete together creates equal opportunities in sport and helps to foster tolerance of a variety of gender identities.
Recently Bristol hosted its annual half marathon extravaganza (read an excellent article about it here). In a similar fashion to many triathlon competitions, women and men compete at the same time. This may not seem like such a radical arrangement, but after watching Half The Road, and discovering that professional women’s cycling races are held separately, capped at shorter distances, or simply dropped altogether, the concept of a mixed run is positively uplifting.
Looking at the results pages of the Bristol half marathon, the finish times are also mixed, rather than listed according to sex. Whilst again this doesn’t come across as particularly ground-breaking, it does level the playing field. Often TV coverage of men’s and women’s events provides separate results for the sexes, which serves to hide the cross-overs in their performances, making women’s sport seem further removed than is indeed the case. Scrolling through the results of the Bristol Half Marathon gives an altogether different impression. It is easy to glean that, out of a total of 8000 runners, the fastest woman was in 18th place overall. Suddenly the gender gap doesn’t seem so unbridgeable.
This also reminds me of Chrissie Wellington’s inspirational triathlon career, where she out-performed men against whom she competed directly, coming 5th overall in the Hawaii Iron Man Championships – a feat that involves swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and finally running a marathon… all in 9 hours. When Chrissie spoke at the Bristol Cycling festival this summer, she recalled how surprised she was about the inequality in professional women’s cycling – assuming that, like triathletes, they had equal coverage, race lengths, and participation opportunities.
The separation of men and women in sports has not only led to the entrenchment of presumed difference, but this difference has also resulted in a hierarchy, where men’s sport is considered to be professional, and women’s recreational. Mixed sport can therefore provide a much needed space to showcase women’s sporting prowess on an equal level to men’s. In turn, the damaging (and false) assumption that there is an incommensurable rift between men’s and women’s sports is undermined.
This assumption is very similar to that of gender being reduced to ‘pink and blue’. A static gender binary, wherein women are weak emotional carers and men are strong rational earners, is as misleading as it is harmful. We are all human beings, and both men and women display femininities and masculinities in a plethora of ways, despite (and in spite of) constraining cultural and societal ideals. Mixed sport is therefore an incredible opportunity to showcase this understanding, by eliminating divisions and seeing each other as players rather than genders.
Whilst sport has developed in some extremely progressive ways (I’ll get to that shortly!), unfortunately it is an institution that has often remained mired in traditional notions of gender. Many children and young adults in schools experience what it is like to be restricted from playing a sport considered to be the domain of the opposite sex. Excluding girls from rugby or boys from netball only serves to reinforce their gendered sense of self, entrenching difference while undermining their ability to explore a range of identities. Having mixed sports sessions and teams in schools not only allows children to engage with sport on an equal basis, but it also encourages tolerance, diversity and understanding.
Identities are fluid, not static. Gender is changeable, not fixed. Confining men and women into separate categories therefore becomes extremely problematic. Take the case of Caster Semenya, the South African 800m Olympic medallist. In 2009 she won the World Championships in Berlin by a huge 2 second margin, leading the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) to conduct invasive tests regarding her gender, believing that she was too manly to have legitimately won a women’s race. While they reviewed her case she was banned from competition and suffered an insensitive media onslaught, before the IAAF eventually let her keep her medal and go back to competing with women.
Caster Semenya is only one of many individuals who don’t conform to simple gender measurements. There are feminine men, there are masculine women, and there are intersex, trans and androgynous people. Not everyone necessarily wants to conform to traditional gender roles. This is another reason why mixed sport is so important – it is inclusive. Everyone can participate, and they don’t need their chromosones or hormone levels tested in order to be able to do so.
Currently there are many sports where men and women can compete alongside each other: tennis, ultimate frisbee, badminton, korfball, tag rugby, triathlon, running, ping pong, horse racing, boules… and just like gender, sport categories don’t have to stay fixed. For example, recently the FIBT (International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation) has ruled that women can compete in ‘four-man’ bobsleigh competitions. In football, the American Samoan team includes a transgender woman, Jaiyah Saelua, who is the first transgender person to participate in FIFA world cup qualifying matches.
As sport develops and changes alongside society, there will hopefully be many more such occurrences. Mixed sport can be recreational or professional, it can incorporate a variety of sports, and can take place anywhere from parks and playgrounds to Olympic venues. Every time it is celebrated and encouraged, tolerance, respect and diversity are strengthened. Mixed sport is extremely valuable. It creates a level playing field for women and men. It can transcend the limitations of an entrenched and harmful gender binary. And on a less serious note, its also really good fun!
What are your thoughts on mixed sport? Is it necessary to have women-only and men-only events? Feel free to post your own opinions below!