May the Best Man (or Woman) Win

by Stephen Gambescia

I traveled with a dozen college students and faculty to London early September to see the Paralympics (disability Olympics). The experience brought new meaning to human performance in sport– the ability to go faster, higher, and be stronger. The trip was the culmination of a course on “Perspectives on Disability.” Recently Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promulgated the need for schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics. In Philadelphia, a young girl and her parents are challenging the league to let her continue to play football beyond the sixth grade.

Given these events, I continue to ponder the meaning of “otherness,” especially as it relates to sport. I am starting to challenge why we have gender-specific competition in elite sport, especially in non-contact sports.

I am surprised how few women, both in sport and out, consider this evolution to equality a radical idea. With just a few months of study of the Paralympics, I am able to appreciate human performance in sport without parameters or qualifiers of the corporeal. So many “barriers” have been broken in sport, it seems that it may be time to consider mixed competition at the elite level– especially in non-contact sports.

The women I have engaged in this conversation have been surprisingly quick to note the many “significant differences” between men and women. I thought the women’s equality movement advocated for “no significant difference.”
Naturally, I understand there are anatomical differences between men and women. However, considering human performance comparisons, especially at the elite sport level, are we not talking about matters of degree, not matters of principle?

For example, at 5’6” most 6’6” men or women would easily outperform me in dunking a basketball. I cannot dunk a basketball; not as a matter of principle of gender, but simply a matter of degree of performance.

Furthermore, I cannot get a good answer why several non-contact sports have to be segregated. Is there a gender difference in diving? Is there a gender difference in sharp shooting? Archery? Dressage? Most Olympic sorts don’t have contact. Why do we continue to compete separately in these?

Take running events– pure and simple human performance events. Many argue that muscle strength gives the males the advantage. Is this not a matter of degree and not principle? There is little I can find principally different between men and women in “just running.” What about the marathon? An argument can be made that since women hold more body fat, they are better equipped to go the distance.

One could argue that socio-cultural constructs have historically favored men in certain sports. Arguments have been made along characteristics other than gender that have proven to be false. For example, African Americans “are not good at” tennis. African Americans “don’t play ice hockey.” Even anthropomorphic arguments in sport have not always held up. In 1992 several Asian runners placed highly in the marathon, including first and second place, disabusing us of the notion that “the Asians are not good distance runners because of their body build.”

Even if socio-cultural forces are strong, have we not advanced in sport to look past stereotypes? Let’s take a close analysis of the need for gender segregation in non-contact sport at the elite level. It appears that the arguments for separate competition are matters of degree not of principle.

I have learned from Paralympians that we should not look at elite athletes principally for their differences, but in matters of degree in how well they perform for themselves or compared with “others,” however we choose to define “otherness.”
Our mantra in the future for wishing well the elite athlete will be “May the best women (or man) win!”

Stephen Gambescia teaches at Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA). Nine students and three faculty attended the Paralympics in London as part of their Great Works Symposium course.

Stephen F. Gambescia, PhD, MEd, MBA, MHum, MCHES
Associate Professor Health Services Adminisration
College of Nursing and Health Professions
Drexel University
1505 Race Street–4th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19102

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