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Competing values in women's athletics

I swear this will be the last word in this space about those two, Harding and Kerrigan. Their 15 minutes of celebrity is well into its second century of overtime.

But now that the show is over _ Kerrigan is off holding hands with Mickey Mouse, and Harding has disappeared somewhere to check her laces and lick her wounds _ let's get down and dirty, dirtier even than the duel itself.

Let's talk about the real reason we couldn't take our eyes off them.

Forget athletics or archetypes. The story about Harding and Kerrigan was also about women's great secret: how we fight and compete against each other.

A sizable part of the population, largely male, has a code word for what went on. Catfight, they call it.

Another part of the population, largely feminist, insists on denying conflict among women at all. Sisterhood, they claim, binds us.

The cliches are all baloney, meant either to put us down or cover things up.

Most women I know tremble at the prospect of competing against each other, demanding to win, hating their opponent enough to want to kill, metaphorically anyway. They go out of their way to duck an argument, get tongue-tied or shrill.

This isn't because we lack courage. Unlike men, who have been learning since Little League, we lack the practice at competition and combat.

We women think competing is unfair, that yelling is mean, to be yelled at is even worse, to be declared wrong is to die almost, and to want to win is scariest of all.

I dredge up ancient, awful memory:

It is summer and a kid dives into a pool at the sound of a starter's pistol. The kid, a middling swimmer at the start of a race, suddenly starts clutching, sputtering, almost drowning, has to be pulled out of the water.

This was me once. My career as a competitive swimmer ended as fast as it started.

This incident was just shrink's fodder, I figured, but then I talked to Carol Chalu, athletic director at Tampa Prep and rated within the year as girls' volleyball coach of the year in Florida and the nation. Chalu wasn't surprised by what I said. She sees such behavior all the time.

"It's something that has to be taught (girls), to be competitive," she said.

"And how do a lot of them react? They cry. It seems a lot of pressure to work hard at something and have a lot of emotion. Then they get over it, and they find they really like competing. They get over the crying, and they discover they like it."

We've come a long way since I couldn't get across the pool so many years ago. There are Carol Chalus around to shatter stereotypes and to teach girls to play team sports, to coach them through the anxiety.

But even if we're slowly learning it's okay not to be nice, everybody around us still expects us to be. Harding would have been Terrible Tonya even without the attack on Kerrigan because Harding doesn't hide her competitiveness. Kerrigan was always Cinderella at the ball, satisfying every dumb-dumb cliche about femininity, because she was always flashing that sweet, frozen smile.

Then she was overheard complaining about Oksana Baiul, who beat her for the gold medal, at the medals presentation. Then she beefed about the judges. Suddenly, Kerrigan was supposedly exposed as a delicious phony, no better than Harding.

I prefer to say Kerrigan was merely caught acting raggedy but real.

I sound as though I'm endorsing poor sportsmanship. But if we stopped paying attention to every athlete who showed off his surly, small-minded side, there'd be great blotches of blank space on the sports page.

Three cheers, then, for Nancy Kerrigan being rude and all but crude. May girls and women everywhere, on the field and off, take note. And heart.

Editor's note: A column by Mary Jo Melone published Jan. 23 focused on a dispute between a Tampa doctor and the builder of his house. The builder, Michael L. Shea, has written a letter to the Times describing the column as insulting and incomplete. His letter appears on today's letters page, 21A.

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