If you were asked to define what strength is in an athlete, how would you do it? Most of us would reference the capability of muscles to move or lift an amount of weight, or the ability to maintain speed across a certain distance over time, or demonstrating an ability to apply force which generates a particular motion, or stops a different motion. But, what about mental and emotional strength? How can human qualities such as those needed to overcome adversity, resist temptation, control reaction, or determination to reach certain goals be measured? The strongest muscles, capable of lifting, moving, or altering course will eventually wear down. In contrast, emotional strength is sustainable throughout one’s lifetime. It is a widely held belief that men’s physiques allow them to develop into bigger, faster, and stronger athletes than women. In most professional sports, male athletes typically have “better” records and their accomplishments outweigh those of women. This has created a societal perception that female athleticism is inferior to male athleticism. However, what if the measure of strength could be quantified by the strength of character instead of physical attributes? Would we still perceive “better” results from the men?
Professor LaVaque-Manty states in Chapter 5 of “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities,” of his The Playing Fields of Eton (2009), the extent of women’s participation and success directly correlates with gender norms and institutional barriers. Title IX greatly increased opportunities for female athletes to participate in amateur level sports, which has led to increased participation on all levels and strengthened the battle against unequal rights. During the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles only 30 years ago, 24% of all worldwide participants were women. By 2012, the percentage of female athletes on the U.S. Team more than doubled, resulting in a team on which greater than 50% of the participants were women. The long-term and powerful effects of Title IX cannot be ignored, and while awareness and acceptance were not instantaneous, the resulting female majority may be an indication that strength should be measured by the ability to endure adverse conditions and inspire others to participate in greater numbers year over year.
The media attention and broadcast hours devoted to women’s sports is a fraction of that given to men’s. This reflects an inequality and the question is whether there is a lack of opportunity for female athletes because of a lack of interest, or is the public not interested because the opportunities do not exist? It is evident that being physically fit and accomplished is not enough for the female athlete; those who compete at the highest level gain recognition only when they are also attractive. This double standard is ridiculous in our current society. An example of media coverage on one particular female athlete’s physical features being emphasized even though her physical feats are extraordinary can be found in ESPN’s feature of Candace Parker. The article starts, “‘Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup…She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. Perfect, white teeth’…imagine that applied to men’s sports: Imagine an article starting this way: ‘Lebron James is handsome. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a medium jock strap he is proud of but never flaunts.’” It sounds ridiculous, right? Social standards don’t require men to be the best in their field and attractive. This sends the wrong message, reflecting society’s requirement that successful women must also be photogenic. Discussing Parker’s bra cup size instead of points in a magazine geared toward a male audience is shameful. The examples are numerous and are not limited to one sport or another, as long as the female athlete’s appearance can sell.
Anna Kournikova is another female athlete whose fame was tied to her appearance. “Her popularity during and after her professional tennis career has less to do with her accomplishments as a tennis player, but more to do with her being extremely photogenic, endorsement advertising, and personal relationships with high profile sports and celebrity men.” Her story is even more ridiculous when we consider she never won a singles tournament, even though her face dominated the media for a number of years.
If you know the story of The Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King achieved a great feat, beating a male tennis player in a match. However, because King fit the masculine stereotype and wasn’t attractive like Chris Evert, who came into the female tennis scene shortly after King, she wasn’t as marketable. Evert held the public’s attention longer and more intensely. Attractive female athletes were able to obtain endorsement deals and other advertising appearances for which King and her numerous accomplishments were never considered. In one ESPN article, it was plainly admitted that Evert’s success is described partly by her skill, and partly by her appearance. “Part of it was — and there’s no getting around it — she was feminine in a time when the stereotype of the woman tennis player was more masculine.”
For both genders, the percentage of athletic participants who become elite professional athletes is extremely small. Male athletes are judged and gain approval on the basis of their athletic performance. On the other hand, female athletes must be able to compete and rely on their physical appearance to overcome institutional barriers. In that context, lets revisit the question about strength. Is it the male athlete whose physicality allows him to outperform his female counterpart when measuring by traditional competitive means, or is it the female athlete who must compete against male athletes for recognition and battle against bias, doubt, or actions designed to hinder performance and still succeed? The emotional aspects of professional sports is undeniable, yet honored infrequently. This leaves me wondering what we value about sport and who is the stronger athlete. The Olympic motto reads, “Citius, altius, fortius” and translates to faster, higher, stronger. Perhaps the steady and growing introduction of female athletes will result in the existing slogan being replaced with “acceptatione, comunitas, pondus” which translates to acceptance, community, value. Working together as one community to recognize the value of the professional athlete’s effort rather than appearance will reveal the true value of sports, including its ability to break down barriers in social settings.