Winning an Olympic medal is tough when you have to overcome both the competition and the burden of being a woman

ABBY HOFFMAN February 1 1975


Winning an Olympic medal is tough when you have to overcome both the competition and the burden of being a woman

ABBY HOFFMAN February 1 1975


Winning an Olympic medal is tough when you have to overcome both the competition and the burden of being a woman


It is one of those ambivalent fall afternoons in Toronto’s High Park. The brisk air forebodes winter; the brilliant sunshine recalls summer. The park’s nature trails are almost devoid of people, the only sounds those of rustling oak leaves underfoot. It’s all quite idyllic, although the farther I run the less note I take of the scenery and the more I take of my legs. Up ahead, at the edge of Grenadier Pond, three kids are fishing. I’ve passed them twice already; and as I come into view again, the three turn their attention from fishing poles to me. They poke each other and hold a hasty conference. As I approach, the youngest (always the most brazen) shouts: “Hey, mister, are you a lady jogger?” After a dozen or so years of training in public parks and streets, I’m used to some pretty strange comments. But this one really has me baffled. I’m mildly irked at being mistaken for a jogger — we runners go to great lengths to distinguish ourselves from the ignominious jogger, since the jogger image carries for us the trauma of premature retirement — but I give myself the benefit of the doubt and interpret their inquiry as to whether I am a lady as an exclamation, not a question. Cursing their impudence, 1 run on, increasing my tempo.

I am often asked if I race against men.

I don’t. But when I am asked — and this is invariably the next question — if I can beat men at my distance I take advantage of the question’s ambiguity, and lying a little say, “Yes.” I actually can beat the vast majority of men — 99.9% of them. I cannot, however, defeat even a mediocre male who trains seriously to race the half-mile, my best event. Come the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, I may well have my problems with the other women running the half-mile, but at least I won’t need to contend with any of the tiny fraction of men who would be sure to defeat me.

Somehow the legitimacy of women’s sports is tied to their ability to be just as good as men. It is true that the men’s Olympic sprint champion Valery Borzov will always beat the women’s champion

Renate Stecher and that Mark Spitz will outswim Shane Gould every time.

But, just for fun, let’s ask why men don’t perform the balance beam event in gymnastics. In this event, Russia’s Olga Korbut usually exhausts her audience with her incredible poise and aesthetic dexterity. Why can an 82-pound girl do what no man can do? Simple — because women are different in a way that makes them superior athletes in this particular event. Women achieve a better balance because of a lower centre of gravity — rump, to the layman. It must be accepted that while both men and women are able to do sports well, they approach the task differently. Men are better at the quick, powerful movement — the end-to-end rush or slapshot in hockey, the knockout punch in boxing. Women, with their smaller stature, lack of large heavy muscles and consequently greater flexibility, have a degree of grace in physical movements that men are unable to equal.

The North American emphasis on sports is in terms of competition, where the goal is to dominate the opposition. And this serves to emphasize the “inferiority” of women’s athletics. The European tradition starts with gymnastics and the development of the individual’s coordination, balance, stamina and strength. It leads to a much healthier situation: equally stringent standards of achievement are applied to boys and girls, and there is less tendency to associate prowess in sport with only one sex. In the North American manner of segregation by sex in physical education classes, boys are unable to share in the natural aesthetic qualities that girls bring to sport, and the girls fail to profit from the natural aggressiveness and strength of the boys.

Athletes themselves are aware of male superiority in terms of brute strength and raw power, but that kind of superiority is not the motivating force of the athlete. At the highest levels one learns how much more there is than simply winning and losing. All through my childhood I fantasized about breaking

an Olympic record. And I finally did it in Munich — regrettably, there were seven others in front of me breaking that same record. There is a poignancy to reality that juvenile fantasy fails to consider. I am sure, however, that as Olympic finalists all eight of us fulfilled childhood ambitions that day.

We often like to think of our own era as the most progressive. In the case of women’s sport this just isn’t so. Admittedly, the mid-Fifties was a pretty trivial period, but when I was caught playing hockey on a boys’ team the incident became headline copy. At the time I reveled in all the ballyhoo — I must have been the only player in the world with a private dressing room — but I could never figure out why a girl wanting to play hockey was such a sensation. I was more confused by the fact that none of my girl friends would admit that they wanted to play. People had forgotten that women’s ice hockey teams were known .in 1900 and that national championships were held in women’s hockey in the 1930s.

The real heyday of women’s sport in Canada was the mid-Twenties to midThirties. The prosperity of the Twenties and the flood of women into the labor force opened up hitherto taboo activities to all classes of women, and athletics was undoubtedly one of these. Led by Myrtle Cook, we won an Olympic Track and Field title at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Canada’s best-known team abroad — Percy Page’s Edmonton Grads’ Ladies Basketball Team — dominated the world.

But it was to be short-lived. In the early Thirties women’s baseball was drawing 5,000 spectators a game to Toronto’s Sunnyside Park; women’s senior basketball games were carried live on the radio with the play-by-play commentary of Bobby Rosenfeld; and sports columnists Phyllis Griffiths, Alexandrine Gibb and Rosenfeld were reporting

Abby Hoffman has run for Canada internationally for many years and is the current Canadian 800-meters champion.

One woman warned me hard training would impair my ability to have children — so I told the old bag to patent her invention

regularly on women’s athletics. By 1934, however, the validity of women’s sports was under attack. Vancouver columnist Andy Lytle wrote a long article asking, “Girls, is sport good for you?” and offered a definitive “No.” The bad times of the Depression years meant conservative attitudes toward women, and this in turn spelled a return to the old idea that rough, aggressive, competitive sport was bad for females.

Following the Second World War, this country and its newfound prosperity created a mood of middle-class values and affluence. And anything that smacked of lower-class habits, such as boisterous body contact and team games among females, was forsaken.

It wasn’t only that women turned away from sport, but the 1950s also spawned a number of myths about athletics for women. Women were supposed to be too delicate to perform any but the most modest sports; women who engaged in body contact sports would damage their vital organs; athletic women would become masculinized in appearance and behavior; and women who took part in vigorous sport would later have difficulty bearing children.

I personally encountered the absurdity of several of these myths. After one of my very first races (at the then unheard-of distance of two miles) I was accosted by a matronly type who warned that hard training would impair my ability to have children. (I insolently told the old bag to patent her invention while plotting secretly how best to use this against my coach to have my training load reduced.) When I attended University of Toronto I attempted to train on what was the only indoor track in Toronto located in the university men’s athletic building. I not only received a belligerent escort to the door but I was also admonished that “girls don’t train.”

Regrettably, the international governing bodies of sport have helped to perpetuate one myth: that some of those girls out there aren’t quite girls. And their solution to this problem is the sex test. Every competitor must submit herself to this test. It used to involve an examination by a panel of medical judges, but thanks to modern science it’s now a very proper affair. A chromosome count is taken based on the examination of a hair follicle. I have personally undergone the test seven times — surely worthy of a note in the Guinness Book of Records — and am pleased to say that I’ve passed every time. I actually took a few hairs belonging to my younger brother to Munich, hoping to slip them

through and create a little comic relief. But the scions of the official body watching over the proceedings were not the least amused by my lightheartedness. Most of the women athletes, however, think the test is a joke. Olga Connolly, the Olympic discus champion in 1956, and married with two children when she competed in Munich in 1972, announced: “If I fail the test, my husband Harold [also an Olympic champion] will have to have the children from now on.” Anyway, along with thousands of other women athletes, I now have a certificate duly stamped, imprinted, signed and authorized proclaiming to the world that I

am, if not wholly female, at least “sexchromatin positive.”

Some of the myths are not really damaging — merely frustrating. The women-don’t-train myth simply means that many public facilities don’t provide changing or shower facilities for women athletes. In Toronto, the same Department of Parks and Recreation that builds changing facilities for the exclusive use of boys runs a competitive program for girls and boys. But in these public recreation centres, the time allocation for girls’ athletics is about one third less than boys, and often, to hide the disparity, cooking and sewing will appear on the sports-for-girls timetable. Disparities in funding are even worse. In many Canadian universities the budget for the men’s football team is larger than that for the entire women’s athletics program.

It is not a single thing that accounts for the lack of sports interest among women; rather it is many things which together create an environment that suggests to girls that sports are mainly for boys. I attended a school in Toronto noted for its excellent football teams. We were near the bottom academically but

we had terrific traditions in sport. (I confess to helping sustain both traditions.) Five afternoons every fall we were let off school early so we could attend the Big Game. The morning before kickoff was devoted to a pep rally during which we were exhorted to hysterical frenzy by the principal, the coaches and the cheerleaders. The players looked on grimly from their seats on the stage. They were the prime objects of status and prestige in the school. The community spirit of the school depended on them, and they served also as an excuse for the physical indolence of the rest of the student body. Not only was it virtually demanded that we attend the Big Games, but every fall the girls were subjected in health classes to several weeks instruction in the rules of football. We weren’t to play the game

— where we might have gained some true idea about it — but we were to pick up enough knowledge to at least participate intelligently in the idolatry. The girls, meanwhile, played their games in the smaller girls’ gym with no spectator facilities and no team uniforms. And as for a girls’ track meet — much too strenuous.

However, times do change. At my old school two years ago, the girls boycotted the usual male-dominated awards’ assembly and staged their own instead to recognize the outstanding female athletes in the school. The unfortunate fact, though, is that the schools still do not succeed either in enhancing the fitness levels of the students or in providing good competitive opportunities. Most girls leave school in a physically autistic state and haven’t the faintest idea how to get any pleasure from sport.

The school situation is bad enough, but other areas provide further evidence of the limited sports environment for women. The federal government’s National Advisory Council on Fitness and Amateur Sport has never had more than five women on its 30-member board. Of the nearly 200 Canadian coaches sent to major international competitions since 1960, only 5% have been women. In all of professional sport, only one woman — figure-skating’s Janet Lynn

— commands a larger contract than the top male. And in most pro sports, where the interest level and spectator appeal for the men and women is comparable, as it is in tennis, say, the women still get considerably less prize money.

The sports media have helped to make the names of our greatest female athletes household words. Canadians have made glamorous national heroes of personalities such as Barbara Ann Scott, Marilyn Bell and Nancy Greene

in a way usually reserved for NHL stars. Knowledge of our sports heroines has undoubtedly encouraged thousands of girls to take up sport, but the image of the female athlete created by the media has been an ambivalent one. On the one hand our successes are readily acknowledged, but on the other women still appear as intruders on the sports page. Frequently, physical appearance takes precedence over performance: women athletes are often depicted as either hideously grotesque or else beauties whose figures amply compensate for any lack of athletic talent.

A recent Weekend magazine article on the Vancouver Chimos volleyball team claimed that the women’s aggressive playing style made them look “like lionesses in heat.”

Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes loves to comment that he prefers “nothing more strenuous than motherhood for the ladies.” On one occasion he devoted an entire column to maligning pentathlon standout Debbie van Kiekebelt’s shot putting — claiming that Canadian males wouldn’t have their hormones stirred by lady shot putters. Too bad for Dick — if Debbie van Kiekebelt can’t stir his hormones, no woman can.

And where the print medium is merely chauvinistic, television sports can be totally neglectful. Except for the really major events, there is virtually no regular coverage of women’s team games. Despite the fact that fully one third of the sports viewing audience is female, there are next to no women sportscasters in Canada. The idea of a woman reading the sports news or doing the color commentary of an event in which the contestants are male is apparently not to be tolerated.

It is often pointed out that our women athletes have a better record in international competition than the men, and many who assess our prospects for the 1976 Olympics look first to the women. Canadian women have in fact produced 15 fewer gold medals than the men in Commonwealth, Pan-American and Olympic competition since 1960, but if we consider that men take part in more than twice as many sports the women do have a decided edge. And most recently, memories of the Canadian performances at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games turn to golds by Jane Haist, Wendy Cook, Glenda Reiser, Bev Boys and the team victory of the Canadian female swimmers over the Australians. All this despite the apparent conspiracy amongst the schools, the media, the recreation authorities and the Canadian culture itself to turn girls away from sport.

It makes you wonder what women might do with a little backing.