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Women weigh in

Published Sep. 27, 2005

This year's Olympics will see more women in more sports breaking more records than ever before. As their physical prowess accelerates, a tantalizing question arises: Can women achieve athletic parity with men?

At the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, 285 athletes from 12 nations competed. All of them were white, upper-class males. As organizer Baron Pierre de Coubertin envisioned it, the Olympics were to be the "solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism . . . with female applause as reward."

Sorry, Pierre. One hundred and four years later, women will be doing a lot more than applauding at the 2000 Olympics.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tara Nott, a 5-foot-1-inch 105-pound soccer player-turned-weighlifter will be going for the gold in women's weightlifting.

Dawn Ellerbe, a 26-year-old Brooklyn native who is 6-foot-2 inches tall and weighs in at 240 pounds, will be a strong medal contender in women's hammer throw.

Twenty-nine-year-old Stacy Dragila, at 5-7 and 140 pounds, will be trying to best her own women's pole vaulting world record of 15 feet 2\ inches.

Twenty-four year old sprinter Marion Jones will be vying to be the first female track-and-field athlete to win five gold medals in one Olympics.

And these are just a few of the American women who won't be just clapping on the sidelines in Sydney. For the first time in Olympic history, hundreds of women from around the world will be competing in the same number of team sports as men. In fact, this time more women _ 42 percent of the total number of athletes in the Games _ will compete in more sports and more events than any Olympics yet.

Among the sports added for women this year are many that previously were considered male-only territory: weightlifting, triathlon, tae kwon do, modern pentathlon, hammer throw, pole vault and water polo. At 39, Maureen O'Toole, who has been called the greatest female water polo player ever, finally is able to make her first appearance at an Olympics.

The struggle for women to pry their way into the Olympics hasn't been easy, says Collette Dowling, author of The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality. They have had to put up with humiliating sex tests (which still exist), social condemnation (in 1929, in Harper's Monthly Magazine, John Tunis wrote that the Olympics was an "animalistic ordeal for women"), taunts about their sexual orientation and even papal opposition (Pope Pius XI wrote, "If ever a woman must raise a hand, we hope and pray she may do so only in prayer or for acts of charity.")

"The history of the Olympics has been a history of contempt _ toward non-whites, toward developing countries, toward women," writes Dowling in her provocative book. "To break into the Games meant having to armor oneself against demeaning practices and behavior."

And don't think those demeaning practices only took place in the unenlightened past. When runner Tegla Loroupe of Kenya first entered the Olympics in the early 1990s, her male counterparts expected her to wash their clothes. And she did. Only after she won the New York Marathon in 1994 did she find the strength to tell her teammates, "I am not your wife."

Male opposition to women's move toward physical achievement has not been accidental, says Dowling. She believes it is part of what she calls the frailty myth, a myth intended to keep women powerless. "Female physical frailty is not a reality but a myth with an agenda," writes Dowling.

"When physically weakened, women become socially and politically weakened," she says. "It is not so much that men want women to be frail and incompetent, and certainly individual men have no consciousness of such a wish. What men want, simply, is to keep on being the ones with the power to make the big decisions, and this is easier to pull off when the other _ the other race or the other gender _ is economically weakened, intellectually weakened, or physically weakened, or ideally all three."

Some might even say that the frailty myth was alive and well during the recent flap at the Little League Senior World Series softball championship in Kalamazoo, Mich. The male coach of the all-girl Inverness team refused to let the girls play a team from Arizona that had boys on it because he was afraid the girls might get hurt.

Dowling certainly presents a strong case in her book that women have not been encouraged to develop their physical strength (and have seriously jeopardized their health as a result). She certainly provides compelling evidence that the strength gap between men and women is narrowing. But can women actually achieve physical parity with men? Isn't the strongest woman always going to be weaker than the strongest man? Isn't the fastest runner, the best tennis player, the highest jumper always going to be a man?

The answers to those questions are not so simple. It depends, it turns out, on what you mean by weak and strong.

Men do have some physical advantages. With more lean muscle mass than women, due in part to testosterone, they do have an advantage in sports requiring explosive power. On the average, they carry more oxygen and tend to be heavier (better for football) and taller (an advantage for basketball and volleyball).

But women have physical advantages, too, coming from having more estrogen. Less muscle-bound, they tend to be more flexible and have more endurance than men, which comes in handy in gymnastics, diving, and skating. Women's lower gravity helps them in hockey, golf, tennis, baseball, and basketball. Women, says Dowling, even sweat better _ crucial for adjusting to environmental changes.

But since women have not been in the game as aggressively and for as long as men have, we just don't know yet how these advantages will play themselves out. Little girls as a rule still are not routinely taught how to throw a baseball or kick a soccer ball by their dads. Until Title IX, the law which mandated equal funding for both girls' and boys' sports in public schools, American girls rarely had any organized sports activities available at their schools, and when they did, it was never as well funded as the boys' activities were. In 1971, the year before Title IX was signed into law, fewer than 300,000 girls in high school played in team sports (compared to today's 2.4-million).

So how do we know just what women as a group eventually will be able to achieve physically? How much does the remaining gap between men and women athletes have to do with access to training (in 1986 still only 16 percent of college athletic budgets were going to females) and how much of it is affected by society's different attitudes toward athletic girls and athletic boys? If women were trained at the same level as men and encouraged toward physical activity as much as their male counterparts, who knows what the limit could be?

Sure, at present the best female athletes in a whole range of sports fall short of the best male athletes in that field. Serena Williams couldn't beat Pete Sampras in tennis. No female golfer could best Tiger Woods. (But then again, what other male golfer could?) There isn't a woman around good enough to play in the National Football League, and few would argue that the best woman basketball player could complete in the NBA.

But girls are starting to play in previously male-dominated sports in greater numbers. In 1998 there were 708 girls playing high school football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The American women's ice hockey team made its Olympic debut in 1998 and won the gold. And by century's end, reports Dowling, 2-million girls were playing soccer in America, many of whom certainly were watching the U.S. team last year when it won the World Soccer Cup. Who knows how much this greater participation will narrow the physical gap between men and women?

Meanwhile in some sports _ those that require endurance _ women already are at parity, and in some cases have pulled ahead of men. In marathon and long-distance cold-water swims, women usually outswim the men, Dowling reports. Seana Hogan recently cycled 400 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 19 hours, 49 minutes, breaking the previous men's record by almost an hour. In 1989, Ann Trason became the first woman to win a mixed-gender national championship, running 143 miles in the 24-hour run, outdoing the best male by four miles. Helen Klein holds the world-record distance in a 24-hour race for her mixed-gender age group (she ran 109.5 miles). Her age group? Sixty-five to 69!

In The Frailty Myth Dowling makes much of men's need to deter women from reaching their physical potential. Sex discrimination, she claims, rears its ugly head each time in history that men face a "crisis in masculinity." At the turn of the century, for example, changes in work and family, urbanization and the increasing female domination of public schools led to a cult of the"he-man," she points out, and, conversely, to the babifying of women who were encouraged to stay indoors. "The girls were home knitting the socks," she writes. "The boys were outdoors skating in them."

Dowling also makes much of women's fear of men and their physical domination over them. "The frailty myth is deeply supportive of women's fear of rape," she contends, pointing out that women rightly perceive rape as not so much sexual assault as violence against them. She returns to a discussion of that fear again and again, rattling off statistics about sexual abuse, sexual harassment and the low esteem that plagues girls after the age of 9 and well into adulthood. So-called power feminists like Katie Roiphe who dismiss such concerns are dead wrong, she says. The "rape culture" is dangerously real.

But Dowling also refuses to throw her lot in with the feminists who cast women as victims and brand men as the enemy. By becoming more physically aware, taking more risks and learning to defend themselves (Dowling strongly advocates self-defense courses), women can fight the frailty myth, and they are doing just that, she says. Also plenty are finding men _ often their own fathers _ willing to be an ally in that fight.

"Allison Jaime Mleczko, one of America's first female ice hockey starS (known as A.J.), was only 2 when her father, a hockey coach, took her to the center of a frozen pond, put skates on her, and then walked off the ice, leaving her there," writes Dowling. A.J. cried, but she worked her way back to the pond's edge and eventually worked her way into training to be a member of the first U.S. Olympic women's hockey team. Her trainer, reports Dowling, was Michael Boyle, a gender-blind Boston University strength-and-conditioning coach who took female athletes as seriously as he did their more celebrated male counterparts.

When minor league pitcher Phil Borders' 10-year-old daughter told him she wanted to be a pitcher, too, Borders practiced with her every Saturday and Sunday from 6 a.m. til noon. Ila Borders, whose photograph graces the cover of Dowling's book, was playing semipro baseball by age 14 and at 23, she became the first woman to win a men's pro game for the Duluth Dukes, throwing fastballs at 77 miles per hour.

Border's jersey hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., "a tribute to her achievement as the first woman to play men's pro baseball," says Dowling. But meanwhile she's hardly resting on her laurels: Her goal is to make a major-league team where pitchers throw 90 miles an hour.

Now that would be something for both men and women to applaud.