In the yin and yang of athletic performance, there is no more vexing question than whether women are equal athletes to men. If one looks only at the empiric evidence, the arguments might away. Certainly, the world’s best men athletes are still faster at every distance than women.
But that empiric measurement means almost nothing to the athletes with whom most of us train and compete. It means nothing these days for men to get beaten by women in running, cycling, swimming or triathlon. It happens every minute of the day and every day of the week. I would argue that makes us equals.
Hijabs and jobs
Not all the world shares this view. This weekend the television program 60 Minutes Sports broadcast the story of the Iranian women’s soccer team. Due to religious laws in that country, women are not allowed to compete without covering their heads and arms and legs. Yet the Iranian women did compete with success until FIFA, the governing body (no pun intended) of international soccer decided to ban the hijab from international play. Left with no recourse, the Iran women’s soccer team forfeited and withdrew from the competition.
Those women were caught between two male-dominated cultures. The decision to ban the hijab may have been intended by FIFA to promote women’s rights, but had the opposite effect in that case.
The Iranian philosophy was just as backward. The rule forcing women to play soccer in full body coverage and wearing the hijab in conditions reaching 100-degree heat was not in the best interests of the health or performance of those women soccer players. Not at all.
But let’s not pretend things are all that much better here in America. the women’s soccer team is far more successful in terms of championships and win-loss record than the men’s team. The women’s team has drawn television audiences numbered in the billions. Yet the women’s team players are compensated far less than the men.
It’s a fact that in many cases where women either compete on the same platform or outperform men, they are still paid less. When a woman runs a 2:15 marathon, that is certainly an impressive achievement.
World Ironman triathlon competitions among men generally finish near the eight-hour mark. Yet the world’s best women complete the same races in a time difference of just 15-20 minutes over 140.6 miles of competition.
Again, that’s at the world class level. Among journeyman athletes, which is 99.9% of us, no such disparities exist. We compete on the same platform.
World class among us
I once raced alongside distance runner Grete Waitz in the Orange Bowl 10K in Miami. She was not in peak form, so my 32:00-time allowed me to finish ahead of her. Right behind were several other world class Masters Male runners including Ron Hill, a former Olympian.
That race alone taught me that relativity is a reality in the pursuit of distance sports. It was a thrill to race alongside a world class athlete such as Grete Waitz. It was fascinating to observe the economy of form and her rail-thin physique. Such a balance of strength and power. She had already accomplished so much in life, winning the New York Marathon several times.
Yet there was Ron Hill as well, on the downside of his competitive career yet still, at age 40 or so, able to race men twenty years younger than himself.
Equality is both absolute and relative, you see. The real measure of an athlete is found in our ability to appreciate the performance of all athletes. Not just the best of the best, but the best of the rest. And that includes you.
God Bless and may you have fun trying to best your equals, whoever they may be.