On the flight over to Texas I managed to watch four films, one of which catching my eye purely because of its title: The Battle of the Sexes. It may have caught my attention anyway, but having just returned from a conference at Durham University entitled, ’50 Years of Sexism: What Next?’ (#sexism50), I think my senses were particularly tuned to pick up on this kind of subject matter. The film, primarily concerned with the ‘battle of the sexes’ tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, is well worth watching whether you happen to like tennis, feminism, and/or sport, for it is beautifully put together from pieces of old interviews merged with recent interview footage and there is enough of the tennis match in question to give you an understanding of what actually went on, which is helpful because if like me you had never even heard of the match, or Bobby Riggs, it helps to contextualise the whole event.
The match itself seemed to have been surrounded by much hype (100 million TV viewers in the U.S) because of Billie Jean King’s commitment to the feminist cause, and because this period was marked by the resurgence of feminism as a movement (also known as second-wave feminism, although I believe that’s not always a popular term). For the sake of not wishing to spoil the film for anyone who chooses to rent/stream it, I will refrain from divulging too much about what went on because I sat riveted to the end, not quite knowing how it was going to pan out (I was only born in 1973), and it would be a shame to spoil that for any interested would-be viewers.
The reason for mentioning the film is that at the time there was a battle going on in tennis where the U.S. Tennis Association refused to acknowledge that women should be paid as much as men per competition, prime feminist territory here, whilst not doing anything to remedy the fact that men had access to far more competitions than women did, and thus the men had even more opportunity to make money. Reacting to some of the women’s insolence over the matter, the U.S.T.A even went so far as taking steps to ensure that women could not play for a time at competitions such as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, in the hope that the women would just shut up and get on with accepting crappy pay cheques. Some 42 years on I find myself asking the following, perhaps controversial question on a regular basis: Why is it that sports are not yet integrated, with women competing alongside men, and men competing alongside women?
What I think is fascinating about such a question is that it highlights the continuing need for separation that seems to exist in sports and athletics. But why? Why the need to confine sports in heavily ‘gendered’ ways? A very recent development in the world of triathlons sees men and women competing in the same teams, a move that is viewed favourably by both the men and women competing in said triathlons, but I can think of few others to mention. A key criticism of integration, I imagine, will be the kind of argument that led to the Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match in the first place – women just aren’t as good at sports/athletics as men are, but that’s a bit 1973 don’t you think? To counter such a view I would ask: How do we know? There seems to be an obvious answer to this question that involves stating the names of the strongest, fastest, etc., sports people in the world, but to counter that argument I would suggest that by keeping men and women separated, in terms of sports and/or athletics, those arguments are moot. Consider how it is that the world’s best sports stars and athletes get to that position in the first instance – they train and compete alongside the best.
Training and competing alongside sports persons and athletes who are stronger and faster is a tried and tested method of ‘raising one’s game.’ If men are stronger and faster, and whatever other sporting method of comparison you can think of, then what is the problem with integrating sports and athletics so that women compete alongside them? Is it possible that a woman could run as fast as a Usain Bolt or a Mo Farah? Is it possible that a woman could beat a Mike Tyson or an Evander Holyfield? Is it possible for a woman to play alongside a David Beckham or a Lionel Messi? Is it possible for a woman to beat a Roger Federer or a Rafael Nadal? If they never get to compete against them, regularly, day after day, week after week, year after year, how will we ever get to know? And why the separation in the first instance – is it fear?