Rosemary McLeod laments female athletes’ treatment

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15 September 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Rosemary weighs up the pressures of PE class with the pitfalls of sport on the world stage.

Please, enough of the Olympics and the impossible brilliance of the athletes. Admire them, marvel at them and now move on to the reality of being forced to go to gym classes and play sports when your ability is woeful.

Recover that memory. Yes, it was torture, former child.

It was never fun, especially if you were uncoordinated or very overweight, but it wasn’t fun even if you were indifferent. What was the point?

Future brainboxes and star athletes stand out from their first tottering steps and almost-words. Everyone else gets pushed along for the ride and the accidental comedy turns. But it’s not all that funny when you can’t vault over a pile of boxes, or gracefully glide over the horrible horse.

Some girls hung from the climbing frames upside down, and clambered up and down them as if born to the circus or training to be stuntwomen. Not many. Some relished dangling from the rope and climbing it commando style. Most didn’t.

I never managed a forward roll, the most elementary physical test; my body and brain couldn’t get into sync over something so illogical. In what real-life situation might you need to perform one? My life has evidently been far less interesting than anticipated.

Humiliation was at the bottom of it. Nothing could make a young teenager, already half crippled with self-consciousness, detest gym classes more than making her fail repeatedly – to what? Qualify for the police? – in front of the rest of the class.

Girls with big bottoms and chubby legs suffered. Girls with large breasts and ill-fitting bras suffered more. And so, the eternal menstruation excuse was invented, the reason why you need to quietly read a book, blocking out the whoops of glee from the elite band of natural athletes as they romp under the adoring gaze of the gym teacher. It was hard to like them.

Gym teachers would eventually turn skinny-eyed about the menstruation excuse and its back-up, the forgot-my-gym-bag tactic. They made you do gym in your underpants, back in the days when schoolkids had no rights and teachers were all-powerful. That was character-building, but not in the way it was intended. The same tactic today, with dental floss underwear, might terrify even a gym teacher. It would certainly terrify me.

What’s required for gold medals is intense focus and hard work. That’s no secret. Lisa Carrington earned her three gold medals in Tokyo – and the others – because she also had the drive to be a winner. She’s now our most successful Olympian ever, turning the traditional male-based focus on its head.

And yet there was a jaw-dropping moment when TVNZ news presenter Melissa Stokes asked her if she now had wedding plans. No wonder Lisa paused. Was marriage what an outstanding athlete would logically aspire to at the peak of her game? Is it life’s penultimate achievement? She dodged the question, which was gracious of her.

Elite Chinese athlete Gong Lijiao won the women’s shot put gold medal in Tokyo, the first in a field event for any Chinese athlete ever. Uproar followed on Chinese television when a presenter followed the same unfortunate tangent, calling Gong a “manly woman” and, for good measure, questioning her about boyfriends and settling down to a “woman’s life”.

Bizarrely, Norway’s Olympic women’s handball team was fined for wearing shorts rather than bikini bottoms to compete. They won the gold medal. Regulations said they should compete in bikini bottoms and a sports bra, for reasons that seem too obvious for comment.

A further requirement for winners: to be taken seriously. It can’t be all that difficult, surely.

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