Is Strength The Only Reason I Can’t Compete With Male Athletes?

The miracle was not that you finished the race, but that you had the courage to start.” These were the words of a friend after I finished my first 10km marathon a year ago, organized by Infosys. I was on cloud nine and was proud of my achievement because even though I was a runner, running a 10km race without any prior practice, and winning it, was something I had never thought about until that day.

This was a starting point, and I never looked back. My passion for long distance running grew. As days and months passed and I trained harder, my motto went from just finishing the race to winning it. In the next race, I came first under the girls’ category. Even though I was aware that I had not given my best, the feeling I got after winning made me happy.

Girls ko kitna fayda hai na. Boy’s category mein competition bahut hota hai. Tum log toh agar chal ke bhi race khatam karo toh medal aajeage (being a girl is so advantageous. There is so much competition in the boys’ category. Even if you walk and finish the race, you will easily get a medal),” said one of my male friends after the race. He finished his race quicker than I did mine – was a better runner than me – but that day he did not get a medal because, among the boys, there were even better runners. Among girls, the competition was never that tough. I knew inside that what he said was true, but I ignored it because somewhere I had also accepted the fact that men are stronger than me and I would never be able to beat them. However, I kept thinking about this incident, and asked myself whether equality is only for political and social justice, and not for sports.

What if there had been only a single category for all the runners? I would have definitely lost the first marathon and maybe the second one too, but would have trained harder for the third one and given the boys a tough competition. I sometimes feel that I never gave my best because knowing that there was no female runner behind me, trying to overtake me, I never felt the urge to push harder. This makes me question the equality between men and women.

Why do we still have separate men’s and women’s categories in sports, if both are equal? The most common argument given for this is ‘different physical abilities’. Men are ‘on average’ superior to women physically, and a look at male and female world records in track and field proves this. This makes me wonder if it is more about ‘biological capacity’ than equality. But even if it is biological capacity, should we stop trying to put up a fight against men?

In almost every Indian sports movie about women, the girls are made to prepare against men before they get ready for the real fight. In “Chak De India”, the Indian women’s hockey team proved themselves against the Indian men’s hockey team before they were allowed to go for the world championship. In “Dangal”, the wrestler girls are made to fight with men to prove their talent. So should we be content when we have beaten the boys at their game, or when we have given our best?

If Mary Kom beats up men in boxing on stage, they call it an exception and a coincidence, but if men perform better than women, they call it talent and hard work. Not just separate categories – by also having higher cut offs for women in sports, we are already telling them that they are not equal to men. This isn’t true only for running, but for every sport. Women were first allowed to participate in 800m Olympics freestyle swimming in 1968, but before that, they were considered too delicate to swim over long distances. Till today, the maximum distance category for women remains 800m, while for men it is 1500m. David Epstein, who wrote “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance”, asserts that there is “no good physical reason” for women to not compete in the 1500m course. But we talk a lot about equality and do very little.

I still run long distances and train myself for competitions. During the recently held “Delhi Midnight Marathon”, I did come first (among girls) and I did finish the race ahead of many male runners in their own race (and finished it strong) but I would not call myself a winner. Because there was yet again a man who came up to me and said, “Congratulations, I knew you would win because there was not much competition in the girls’ category. Under the boys’ category, you have to be an Olympic runner to win such events.” I will be a winner only when people start recognizing me for my effort and willpower and not my wins. When they stop comparing the categories of men and women. Meanwhile, I train myself not to win but to give my best and cross the finish line with satisfaction on my face. And I know that if women are trained physically and mentally at the same rate as men, we will soon have women crossing the finish line before men.

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Maria Ansari in Media
August 18, 2018