Women and Sport

by Michelle Crawford BSc (Hons)

South Africa's Caster Semenya competes in the women's 800m final race of the 2009 IAAF Athletics World Championships on August 19, 2009
Caster Semenya

The decision on Caster Semenya by the IAAF to make her take drugs that would reduce her testosterone before she can take part in women’s sports got me thinking about my own experience as a female sports women and personal trainer.

I find the decision outrageous and believe will set female sports and gender equality back. Although I understand the decision and the fear, it is a limiting perception around women and their capabilities, I’m sure my testosterone levels naturally increase the more I muscle mass.

Semenya is not a transsexual or transgendered she is a woman, described as intersexed, but a woman nonetheless and should be treated as so.

This is not Casters Semenya’s issue but a female issue due to perception and belief passed down to us through a patriarchal system of stereotypes and beliefs.

While growing up I always wanted to play sports that women weren’t supposed to play and I never limited myself by the belief that I couldn’t compete with men.

I took this attitude into my adulthood, and even when I took up martial arts and weight training I would train with men because I wanted to challenge myself. At this time I never met women who challenged themselves physically in the same way as me.

I never dressed like other females because I hated skirts and dresses, although they tried to force me, I refused and was constantly punished for it. I was called a ‘tomboy’ and constantly asked if I wanted to be a man.

I would be referred to as sir and friends and family would try to get me to do what they considered feminine like wearing make-up or skirt. so for most of my life I thought I was weird and that there was something wrong with me.

Then I came out and discovered other women like me and met a great friend who encouraged me and supported me. She was also into sports like weight training, and competed in Judo, she also didn’t fit into the stereotypical ideas of feminine, so from then on I saw myself as androgynous.

Female sports have improved because of women who have pushed the boundaries, it was gay women who started off female football and got it taken seriously, as with the Hackney women’s team. We have also seen this with the likes of Serina Williams and Simone Byles. We see that sprinting is usually dominated by Afro-Caribbean’s and long-distance running used to be dominated by African runners, and were ethnicity has dominated the field or other athletes have pushed the boundaries of that sport, athletes have had to train harder to catch-up. They didn’t lie down on the track crying that these people had more dominant genes and that made them better at the sport.

Over the years I have constantly watched women under estimate themselves, and then in turn other women, when it comes to physical fitness. I hear I don’t want to build muscle and look like a man as well as being told what I can’t do because I am a woman. There is no reason why women can’t get fitter, stronger or faster than what was previously considered, the norm.

In gyms women will walk in and pick up the lightest weight, do about 25 / 30 reps and believe they are working out even though they could probably keep going with that weight for 2 days non=stop. Were as a man will walk in and try the heaviest weight, realise he can’t’ do it and then go for the next one down until he gets strong enough to lift it.

In a PT session I can give women a 6kg weight and they will look at it and without trying will say they can’t lift it. Yet they will pick up their toddler with no hesitation and they can weigh upwards of 6kg. This is the real difference between men and women. Psychological conditioning is what holds them back, not necessarily physical capabilities.

By blaming Semenya’s talent solely on her testosterone levels and not her skills is an insult not only to her but to all women everywhere. How do we know how far women can push themselves if not made to compete with athletes like Semenya, women’s tennis would not have improved as much as it has if not for the power of the William sisters.

I was constantly told I couldn’t do things because I was a girl when growing up, before it became popular to lift weights and build muscle. As a female I was breaking stereotypes around how much women can lift, or how much power a woman can have, or how much muscle a woman can gain naturally.

In martial arts I always trained with men because I knew men never doubted their strength or skill level. After convincing them to train with me the same as they would train with a man, took some persuading but humiliate them enough times they lose that conditioning, and treat me on an equal level, so I would learn how to beat them.

I also had a sensei who did not train women differently from men. No excuses for not doing push ups on my knuckles or pushing weight. No excuses when it came to fighting men, and in most cases I would would win unless they where a higher grade than me. Even then I would put up a fight.

So if your weaker train harder and gain muscle, if you are not as quick accept that you’re not as good and get better and faster. Stop limiting yourselves, me and other females to your patriarchal ideas of what women can and can’t do. Those ideas and beliefs have been handed down by men over generations along with other beliefs around our education and work capabilities for example.

Yes, men can build muscle easier than women but how much of that is down to nature and how much is down to nurture. How much are you limited by your own psychological beliefs and how much are you limited by nature.

Before I can lift a weight that I couldn’t previously lift I have to believe I can lift it and then train to lift it. My body adapts to me lifting that weight so I increase it and keep getting stronger. I have never looked at something and said a) I can’t do that because I am female or b) I can’t beat him because he is male. I have thought I can’t beat him because he is better than me so I must train harder and more intelligently, but never blamed it on my gender.

If we had listened to science only over the generations women’s sports would not be where they are now, women would not have the vote, women would not be in education and female athletes would not be where they are today.

STOP LIMITING YOURSELVES AND THEREFOR OUR GENDER!!!

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