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Levelling the playing fields

- Ufrieda Ho

The competitive sporting world is playing catch-up with the realities of gender in modern society.

Women in sport | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

When the German gymnastics team arrived at the Tokyo Olympics with arms and legs covered in unitards, it earned more attention than the team’s performance. It was the same when the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team ditched their bikini bottoms for fitted shorts at the Euro 2021 Games and got fined for ‘improper clothing’.

The defiance of the two teams were statements; a triumph of female athletes pushing back on the world’s biggest sports stages, protesting, and importantly, finding support beyond the sporting world to drive home the fight for gender parity, equal rights, women’s freedom of choice over their bodies and the long-overdue respect and recognition of athletic professionalism for women in sports.

“Each step forward is a triumph in raising awareness, and in keeping gender issues a priority,” says Dr Corlia Brandt, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy. But, she says, these are also moments to reflect on just how much work society as a whole still needs to undertake. One of the biggest gaps is found in research data on women in sports, and research that comes out of SA in particular. 

Starting from scratch

“We really have been starting from scratch. There are no statistics to go on that give you a base from which to start. What is available is based on men’s profiles even though of course, women athletes have such different needs,” Brandt says. 

A key area of focus that is overlooked, for example, is the changes in the pelvic area after childbirth. The dearth of research hinders the return of women athletes to professional sport after having a child.

Training and assistance to return to peak performance is not specific or targeted and this can affect women’s longevity in competitive sports. Add to this the limited support and understanding of shifting pressures for young mothers who are sometimes forced to hold down fulltime jobs because professional careers in sports are not a reality for many female athletes.

Brandt also focuses on inclusivity in sports, including support and the rights of transgender athletes to compete fairly. This extends to understanding the need for medical and psychological support and the reality that transgender people remain easy targets for discrimination and victimisation.

Moving goal posts

“Sporting codes and rules are changed regularly, but if there isn’t research, new data and evidence emerging, we won’t be able to push as hard or fast to bring about transformation,” she says. For example, the International Olympics Committee admitted this year that its guidelines for transgender athletes are ‘not fit for purpose’ and are only expected to be released in early 2022 – three years behind schedule.

It means ensuring that the voices of those on the margins are heard, Brandt says. It is essential for visibility and representivity.

Jon Patricios, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine, agrees that there is a need for more diverse voices in the room, more platforms for open, focused discussions, and for more robust science. 

Patricios says that it is clear that society’s agenda must move towards greater inclusion and tolerance while promoting diversity. At the same time, competitive sport finds itself at odds with this because it is binary by design. Sport separates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and celebrates the exceptional that stands above the average person, he says.

“Sports participation is different because it’s about rules and regulations. Either you qualify or you don’t; either you compete in the men’s or the women’s divisions; either you are a junior, senior or a veteran; either you’re a heavyweight fighter or a featherweight fighter, and so on,” he says.

About fairness and safety

Aligning sport with societal shifts must therefore take a nuanced but directed approach. It must also still fulfil competitive fairness and safety requirements, especially in collision sports.

In rugby for instance, the World Rugby Federation released transgender guidelines to disallow transgender women to play in women’s rugby. Transgender men are allowed to play men’s rugby ‘on confirmation of physical ability’. Transgender men may not compete in women’s rugby ‘after the process of sex reassignment (that includes testosterone supplementation) has begun’, the current rules state. 

Guidelines need to evolve in response to whether they are successful and also where they fail. “Sports’ regulatory bodies are making decisions on transgender athletes without adequate scientific support,” says Patricios.

“Managing fairness in a competitive sporting environment is different from how it applies in a general societal context.”


Women’s cricket research

The Wits Cricket Research Hub for Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation launched in October 2021 with a division looking only at women’s cricket.

It is a huge step forward to ensure that evidence and research become the backbone of professionalising the women’s divisions and to give female players equal status. Researcher and physiotherapist Jolandi Jacobs, who heads the Division, says for many young women having a career in sport was a limited choice even just a decade or so ago.

“Many of us had to choose careers that would mean you could support yourself financially instead,” she says, having played professional cricket throughout her teens. 

Jacobs believes that the professionalism of female sport is changing rapidly with the push for research laying new foundations. Until now, the data and evidence have been borrowed from research on male players, but she says that there are obvious requirements to understand female cricket players’ different needs and therefore strengths and limits for peak performance, injury prevention and rehabilitation. 

“Fast bowling is one of the most complex movements in sport because you run, jump, twist, land and deliver the ball. The action causes fast bowlers to be particularly injury-prone, but the bowling action is different for male and female cricket players,” says Jacobs.

Male players have a more linear approach to bowling where everything lines up and they use momentum to deliver the bowling action. Females have a more rotational approach with less linear momentum. 

“So, male fast bowlers tend to have more lower back injuries and female fast bowlers tend to have more shoulder injuries,” she says. 

The women’s division of the Research Hub is beating a path for the next generation of female cricket players. 

“We want to be able to conduct research that also looks at adolescent girls and to understand their pathways through sports, whether or not they become elite athletes – it’s understanding not just injury prevention, but the psychological aspects of the game and pressures on athletes who are also thinking about salaries, families and work-life balance,” she concludes.

Read more about the Wits Cricket Research Hub: 

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.