Should All Sports Go Gender-Neutral?

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Why you should care

Mixed-gender sports are coming to the Tokyo Olympics. Should all sports go gender-neutral too?

This week: Should all sports go gender-neutral? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

Tom Hanks, Madonna and Geena Davis made the Rockford Peaches famous in A League of Their Own back in 1992, but the team’s real-life equivalent — the most successful team in the history of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — is still playing ball 75 years after first taking the field. A 75th anniversary celebration took place in early June, with games at Rockford’s newly renovated Beyer Stadium and a campaign by the International Women’s Baseball Center to preserve Rockford as the home for “baseball for all.”

Professional women’s baseball is not as popular as the MLB, but that’s not the point, says Dr. Kat Williams, professor of women’s sports history at Marshall University and IWBC president. “Baseball saved my life,” she says. “We don’t want to eliminate softball or force the men to compete with women. But if any woman is good enough, nothing should impede her rise to the top.”

There are massive biological differences to consider as athletes mature.

Eric Azersky, Brooklyn-based physical education teacher and athletic director

In 2016, Lauren Lubin became the first non-binary athlete to compete in the New York City marathon. Their call for a gender-neutral future in professional sports made headlines on race week, and the topic continues to rile debate. Whether it’s resources, salaries or on-field competition, gender equitability is likely to shape the future of sport. But a conversation about equitable resources is alien to that of equal competition. No one gender is less deserving of an equitable opportunity — so do all sexes belong on the same playing field?

“No matter how you answer this, someone is going to get offended,” says Eric Azersky, a Brooklyn-based physical education teacher and athletic director. Luckily, the Third Rail specializes in offensive revelations. “I think gender-neutral sports are terrific for children, when sports are played for recreation and health rather than competition.” But what about when the competition advances? For Azersky, maturation requires reassessment. “There are massive biological differences to consider as athletes mature,” he says. “If they can compete, no one should miss out on opportunities. But at some point, the fields separate.”

Still, some playing fields are converging. In June 2017, mixed-gender events in athletics, swimming, table tennis and triathlon have been added to the Summer Olympics schedule in Tokyo 2020, with International Olympics Committee sports director Kit McConnell telling reporters at the time, “We have taken a really important step forward in terms of gender equality.”

With the new addition, the Tokyo Games will now include a 4x400-meter mixed relay in track and field and a 4x100-meter medley in relay swimming. Yes, that’s right, that means there’s still hope for a Michael Phelps–Katie Ladecky aquatic dream team for the red, white and blue. But, elsewhere, some of the most storied Olympians in American history are still battling for representation.

The U.S. women’s hockey team has won eight gold medals and four silvers in world championships and the Olympics. They captured the gold over their rival, Canada, this winter in Pyeongchang. Yet one of the most successful national teams in the world nearly boycotted the 2017 world championships because of an obvious lack of financial support. Eventually, USA Hockey agreed to guaranteed terms that included annual compensation of approximately $70,000 per player, performance bonuses for Olympic medals and marketing and public relations improvements, but the reciprocation remains far from anything the men receive. “We reached a breaking point,” says Team USA captain Hilary Knight. “We hadn’t been taken seriously and, if you really think about it, it was a miracle that we’d had so much success with the resources we were lacking.”

All sports turning gender-neutral would certainly solve the issue of gender equitability but, at present, that remains far-fetched, owing to concerns over safety, biology and implementation. Following the IOC’s announcement regarding mixed events in 2020, Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), warned that implementing the mixed events will present new challenges. And, though he may not have meant to say so, new opportunities. “We should not expect the athletes entered to compete in the men’s and women’s 4x400-meter relays … to compete in a third round of heats and finals for the mixed relay without allocating the appropriate space and time in the program or enabling teams to bring additional athletes,” Coe said in a statement.

Translation? More athletes must be allowed to compete in order for these events to run smoothly. Making Olympic dreams come true should do the trick.

What do you think? Should we ignore gender in the sports world? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or by answering in the comments below.

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