Between twelve and sixteen I was a junior member of the British Sub-Aqua Club. We met at Portobello swimming pool – back when there was a salt-water pool. For years, every Monday night, I spent a couple of hours learning how to swim underwater with a snorkel and mask and fins. I played underwater hockey. We did a week up on Skye where we learned how to dive off a boat, and wear wetsuits, and knife discipline.
All divers carry knives, because you may get tangled in seaweed or a net: knife discipline was the senior instructor informing us, in a tone that made clear he meant what he said, that we were each being issued with a knife, that this knife was to stay in its sheath, that if any of us ever EVER took the knife out of its sheath without a good reason or above water AT ALL or were seen messing about with it, that was IT, the kid who did it was never going back in the water again. A dozen teenage boys and two girls listened with awed attention and you better believe that we never did. (That I still remember that lecture thirty years later – he was memorable.)
I loved it, and I was good at it. Women have a slight genetic edge over men in learning how to dive and to swim in cold water, but I mention this just for the sake of smugness: most of it is training. I loved being able to use my fins to zip through the water like a fish. I loved being able to see underwater. Snorkelling was great. I had huge confidence in the water and would have liked to learn how to use an aqualung. It was an entirely new experience for me when the other kids started demanding to be on my team when we played underwater hockey, because my team usually won.
I stopped when I should have gone on to the adult club. The membership fees were more, you were expected to buy more of your own equipment, my parents were struggling financially at the time. Besides, I had come out, I was beginning to develop a social life, and while I enjoyed it, I would have been the only woman in the adult club, as I was often the only girl in the junior club. And I had become always the only girl who could consistently outswim any of the boys.
Did I get bullied? Yeah.
Not in the pool, and not, as far as the adult instructors could prevent it, outside the pool. But some of the boys who went to the club also went to my school, and they were never happy about how I could outswim them. A girl isn’t supposed to be able to compete with boys: sports are segregated precisely because of how unhappy it makes boys. (There’s a great technical analysis of Ye Shiwen’s world record and a great feminist analysis of the sexism and racism in the allegations that there must be something wrong with her or she’d never have swum that fast.)
I would never have made a champion – I just happened to be a pretty good swimmer who was very willing to train – but I wonder sometimes what I could have done with those acquatic skills if I’d had anywhere to go after I turned sixteen. (The adult instructors, who were all members of the adult club, were hugely supportive and helpful: it wasn’t in any way their fault.) But as for the other kids at school – it didn’t help that PE lessons at school were generally unhappy sources of bullying – even school swimming lessons, where I did not particularly shine unless the instructor took a whim to see how long any of us could hold our breaths underwater. I was fitter and stronger for learning how to swim, but still as much of a clutz at sports generally as I’d ever been and as my PE instructors expected me to be.
Most women who do sports regularly do not end up conventionally attractive. Especially not women who do sports that build muscle.
we don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.
Oh but wait, you aren’t. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant.
These Olympics are supposed to be about inspiring a generation. A recent study found that only 12% of schoolgirls are reaching required fitness levels by 14 because they see sport as unfeminine. That’s a disaster in the making. The culture of adult sport must change so that women and girls feel sport is for them, not a male preserve they are muscling in on.
The US Metro asks (and provides a lovely series of photos to demonstrate) What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?
But it isn’t. I was watching the men’s gymnastics at the weekend. I don’t really care about the nationalistic aspect of it, but I love watching what a superbly trained individual can do. But consider the ages of the gold medallists in all-around gymnastics. 2012: 16 and 23. 2008: 19 and 28. 2004: 17 and 22. 2000: 20 and 24. 1996: 18 and 23. 1992: 15 and 20. 1988: 19 and 24. There’s a substantive age difference, and the closest all-around gold medallists are Andrei Nemov, who’d turned 24 on 28 May 2000, and Simona Amânar, who turned 21 on 7th October 2000.
“Gymnastic equipment is geared to slim, wiry, prepubescent girls and not to mature women; conversely, men’s gymnastic equipment is tailored for muscular, mature men, not slim, wiry, prepubescent boys. Boys could compete with girls, but are not allowed to: women gymnasts are left out entirely. Girl gymnasts are just that – little girls who will be disqualified as soon as they grow up (Vecsey 1990). Men gymnasts have men’s status.” (“Believing is Seeing: What Sports Illustrate”, Judith Lorber Understanding inequality: the intersection of race/ethnicity, class, and gender, ed Barbara A. Arrighi, 2007)
Andrew Brown at the Telegraph practically had the vapours over the women’s judo:
This wasn’t a bit of pretend wrestling. Gemma and her American opponent, Kayla Harrison, were properly grappling with each other, throwing each other with full force onto the mat. They both showed pure, naked, fierce, animalistic aggression of a sort that one doesn’t naturally associate with women – or girls for that matter. Quite honestly my initial reaction was one of shock. I felt rather as I would if I’d bumped into two drunken women bashing ten bells out of each other outside a Yates Wine Lodge on a Friday night – a bit unsettled. The photographs of the judo women will be all over the papers tomorrow, because they’re dramatic and sensational.
With those judo contestants – and I realise this will probably sound appallingly sexist – I couldn’t help wondering about their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises.
Goodness. Don’t let him watch Jane Austen’s Fight Club, or he will require hartshorn and a lie-down in a dark room.
We all know that the London 2012 Olympics is, if anything, going to damage ordinary participation in sports in the UK – so much budget cut from state schools and public facilities like swimming pools, where kids should be learning to their best of their ability and enjoyment. You can’t become an Olympic level athlete unless you start young and have parents (or a government) who are willing to ensure you train and train and train. But the point of sport isn’t to win medals – it’s to be fit and accomplished and have fun.
Not that I’m saying Olympics athletes don’t have fun. You don’t get to be that good unless you really really want to be.