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On Being an Average Female Athlete

At the start of every softball season I run into a little problem of motivation. This year is no different. Why do I play at all? I often can’t remember the answer. 

Rather than find some spark of motivation or desire, instead I re-examine the growing collection of reasons not to bother.

I’m no Serena Williams. No Mia Hamm, not a Jennie Finch,Lindsey Vonn, Billie Jean King, nor any  of a number of remarkable female athletes who have graced our news. 

As a softball player, I’ll never appear in a national championship game. As a runner, I’ll never win any races. I’m pretty good at some things, I’m in ok shape.  Were I to pick up another sport, I could probably muster up some  decency at it. But I will never call myself a champion of any sport.

Now I’m 30. As I get older that reality only seems to sharpen.

The best word to describe this kind of athleticism is simply average.

Sometimes athletes say they play for the glory. Sometimes they play for the competition. Sometimes they play to win. 

Athletes are the worst romantics. They talk about winning as if winning is the pinnacle of life achievement. They talk about sport in terms of life or death.

Venus Williams: 

“I think why people love sport so much is because you see everything in a line. In that moment, there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. You either do it or you don’t.”

Maybe those words are for the fans. Certainly they don’t describe me huffing my way past first base, wishing I’d donned a better bra. What a relief to simply hit a single. I keep thinking I should quit.

“Quitters never win,” my partner reminds me.

“They never lose either,” I say back.

Were winning the object of sport, most women would be talked out of playing sports as small girls. Never mind the battle of the sexes, everybody seems to agree that girls certainly could not win against the boys. John McEnroe’s recent comment on Serena Williams might be a notorious example, but one has only to read the comments to get an idea of the general consensus. The top comment: “It’s all basic biology.”

That women are poorer athletes than men seems to be so completely uncontested that even in a sport like skiiing, where there is an imaginable possibility of a girl winning, she’s not even allowed to try. I’ll root for Lindsey Vonn but I won’t take offence if I can’t play against the boys simply because I don’t care. For the average athlete, it isn’t about winning.

It isn’t about exercise. The worst time to go running is when you are feeling fat, as if running will help you lose weight. It doesn’t. Training for a marathon, for example, requires so many extra calories that you probably will gain weight when you start. I discovered this first hand, but it’s not hard to find an article to back it up.

It isn’t about health. The average athlete is plagued by injury due variously to being out of shape or poor, unpracticed reflex. The knees and ankles click — from playing catcher or from running? Last year I was hit in the face with a softball, suffering fractures to my sinus and cheek bones, a chipped tooth and an eye swollen shut.

One year on and the nerves to my gums on the left side are still numb, that left cheek still has a prettier flush than the other one, and I am frightened by the shadows that flirt with my vision in the left eye. But it could have been much much worse: doctors warn me about retinal detachment.

It isn’t about glory in battle. They say to the average runner that one should compete against herself. Instead of aiming for world records, start with a personal one. How inspiring! How could she lose? Worse, how can she possibly win, what with age and fat and the leftover skin from the last pregnancy? Though it is not such bad advice if she is running a six minute kilometre / ten minute mile. She is not about to beat one of Deena Kastor’s records.

Without fail I still run slowest when I’ve brought a timer, as if my legs were trying to say to my heart, Let it go.

It isn’t about team spirit. Many of the softball teams I’ve played for have crumbled into bitter disputes that could easily be summed up as unjustifiable catty bitch fights. I wonder whether the world of women’s sport suffers uniquely from this sadly unfeminist squabbling. 

As I’ve gotten older the intensity of these squabbles has ebbed, but one or two bitches still turn up every season. I wonder if this is just on the teams I end up playing for? Who knows, maybe it’s me.

It isn’t about political liberty. Modern team sport has a history embedded in colonialism and political oppression. The British called the Olympics a “festival of the Empire”.  In New Zealand organised sport was used during industrialisation to effectively manage workers’ leisure time (source). 

It isn’t about love. Though I cannot deny the purely physical satisfaction of performing something beautifully. The pleasure one experiences having achieved a personal best. Sweat.

But as female athletes, our obvious pleasure is objectified and consumed, putting us at further disadvantage compared with men. Professional female athletes are scrutinised not only in terms of athletic performance but also for their appearance and physique.

This objectification is worsened by the uniforms women are still expected to wear in some sports.  I would guess that wearing a skintight outfit has more advantages than skating in a hijab. However, one of the scary results of the sexualisation of female athletes is that female athletes are also more vulnerable to crazy stalker fans.  

We runners of average proficiency are often warned of stalkers on mapmyrun.com. I’m not sure how that rumor originated. It seems that there are always stories of female runners maliciously attacked on their evening jog.  

The BBC reported earlier this year that one in three women have been harassed while running and according to their survey, 60% of female respondents reported feeling anxious while running due to personal safety concerns. Runner’s World reported worse results from an online survey, in which 43% of respondents reported being harassed regularly while running.

I think I’m lucky in this regard. While I have been yelled at, honked at and whistled at, I’ve avoided being followed and/or sexually propositioned, which respectively have affected 30% & 18% of the RW respondents.

I know that I’m more likely to be run over in a road accident than physically attacked, yet the prevalence of such harassment coupled with ubiquitous murdered-jogger stories in the news still lead me to hesitate to run by myself along those less frequented routes, lest I get dragged off into the bushes by some loitering predator. It’s a shame though, as those routes are usually the more enticing and the more fun.

I also have found that I get fewer catcalls if I wear running pants and a loose top in lieu of running shorts and a singlet. Fortunately the average female softball player is not burdened by overly sexy softball uniforms. In the first few years I played, we simply wore the men’s old shirts, sweat-stains be damned, and any shorts we liked.

I guess, with all that baggage, the average female athlete will suffer more distress than glory, more difficulty than reward, more indignity than exaltation. She is probably doomed to average-dom. They say that those who cannot do should teach, but alas, the average female athlete will probably not be able to look forward to coaching either.

After all that why would any of us still want to play?

Could it be, for lack of a better word, simply fun? One thinks of movies and popcorn and water slides as fun, but it’s harder to associate the word with the sharp burst of air into the lungs as the legs burn lactic acid over the crest of a hill.

What is it that describes the dull thwock of a ball hitting a composite bat before pleasantly sailing away?

The chalky breath of sand exhaling under a well worn cleat?

The familiarity of muscle memory, the repetition of a single movement over and over again until it has solidified itself as an unthinking habit of the body?

The focus of the mind at the task at hand?

Perhaps one could call it a little bit of personal freedom. It crystallizes in the fresh air, the physicality, the immediacy of a particular moment through which one has to endure, time stretching out uncomfortably even as the remaining kilometres in the race around the bases shorten.

Completing this insignificant task has somehow swollen into an enormous never-ending saga. The sprint to home plate is the only thing at hand. Maybe “fun” doesn’t enter this equation, but in that small moment a word like average might be meaningless. A word like female might cease to exist at all.

At it’s simplest: we play because we can. 



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