The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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Will we ever have mixed gender teams in all sports competitions?

Mark Said Sunday, 17 March 2024, 08:12 Last update: about 4 months ago

Lately, I have been pondering on what it would be like to have a football team made up of football stars the likes of Alexia Putellas or Megan Rapinoe playing alongside Messi, Ronaldo, or Kane. Or greats like Haley Bugeja and Rachel Cuschieri playing on the same team as Paul Mbong and Luke Gambin.

While men and women live, work, and socialise together, sports have generally remained an activity that segregates its competitors by sex, justified on the basis that men and women are physically built differently. Men are generally taller, heavier, stronger, and quicker than women, which means that competing on an equal basis is not really possible in most sports. Generally, most sports segregate men’s and women’s competitions to ensure the sport is competitive and more enjoyable to both play and watch. True, not all sports completely segregate male and female competition, and in exceptional disciplines, men and women compete together.

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Some sports, like badminton, tennis, and ice skating, have mixed events where men and women form a team and compete against another mixed team. This way, men and women compete together and against each other in a fair way, as both teams feature the same number of male and female players. Not only that, but there are a few other sports, such as equestrian and sailing, where men and women compete against each other regardless of sex. In these sports, the physical differences between men and women are deemed not to have any effect on the outcome of any competition. But is this enough for full gender equality in sports?

Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, south London, has been celebrating its achievements in having mixed-gender teams in a long list of sports disciplines, ranging from rugby, cricket, football, water polo, hockey, and netball. This was possible because the School’s basic sports principle is that success is about subtlety rather than brute strength. There are other schools around the world that are taking this path, and this goes on to confirm that mixed teams are on the rise and that interest is growing.

Mixed teams offer compelling benefits. Girls who access sports on equal terms with boys can achieve stellar success. Take England rugby international Danielle Waterman, who started to play at Minehead Barbarians with her brother and has gone on to win more than 50 caps, or former women’s cricket skipper Charlotte Edwards, who found it completely normal and brilliant to hone her skills as captain of a boys’ team at the age of 11. There are still many areas where women are treated as second-class citizens. It does not take a genius to start wondering whether the messages on the pitch as well as in the classroom might filter through into later life.

Mixed teams would send out the signal to spectators as well as players that equality of opportunity, reward, and kudos is a given. There should be no doubt about why it matters for girls to feel they have just as much right as the boys to play cricket, football, and rugby. It is about understanding their own self-worth and being prepared to go for it, taking risks, being resilient, and being confident enough to know what it is they want to do without letting anything stop them. It should be all about fielding the strongest possible team.

I find it ludicrous that in this day and age, the existence of mixed sports teams should even be questioned. Yet it clearly remains a touchy subject. I do not know when this is likely to change, if at all. I yearn to foresee a time when mixed teams for all sports disciplines and age groups will increasingly become the norm. It can only be a good thing. Boys have a different range of skills and personality traits that they can pass on to girls, and vice versa. They can learn a lot from each other.

With gender becoming increasingly irrelevant as far as sport is concerned, the future should already be here. The attitude should be simple. Gender does not matter. What counts is the player’s interest and enthusiasm. The philosophy one should be working towards is that if a girl or boy wants to access a sport and can demonstrate the right sort of attitudes, attributes, physicality, technical ability, and tactical awareness, they should play. The world is multi-gendered, and that should be reflected in all sports. If this approach takes off, the result could be a change in attitude that goes far beyond the boundary line.

There has been a lot of discussion around the new mixed-gender disciplines that had been added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics programme, where men and women were able to compete together and against each other. Athletics, swimming, table tennis, sailing, and triathlon all had mixed-gender events. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport without discrimination of any kind and in a spirit that requires mutual understanding, with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play. That is according to the Olympic Charter. But sport is still one of the last places in society where segregation and, in turn, discrimination occur. I admit that it is not as simple as just opening all sports to all genders, but it is not an impossibility.

The structures of sport have not necessarily changed to reflect our rethinking of gender, where gender is not necessarily binary anymore. It is much more fluid. Concerns have been raised about the differences between men’s and women’s physical abilities and that women would get hurt playing against men. We need to think bigger than that. It is about making sports fair.

I am not convinced that what are traditionally considered male energies or qualities or female energies or qualities really have as much to do with gender as many people think they do.

 

Dr. Mark Said

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