Last week I found myself in a pick-up game of basketball with a group of middle school students. We divided into a team of four against my team of three. The players were all boys except for one, a girl of average middle-school height, which means no taller, but no shorter than most of the boys on the court.
After a few possessions, my team of three started falling into our roles. Jonathan was the short ball handler who ran point. I played Michael Jordan in the wings and Megan hustled in the post. We got into a rhythm and probably out-passed most NBA teams. The teamwork was contagious as Jonathan put the ball into play and I dished off pass after pass into Megan for her surefire shots in the post. Anytime she got the ball within ten feet of the basket, it was money in the bank. Jonathan and I shot from outside and drove the lane just enough to keep the defense honest and allow Megan to keep working the basket.
On defense, our star player out-hustled every member of the opposing team for the rebounds. As I watched Megan school the boys in basketball, I realized I was surreptitiously aiding in the most important lesson of the school day for these boys: debunking the myth that every male is unfortunately socialized to learn in childhood, the myth that women are less capable and somehow unequal. I smiled without bringing any attention to the lesson as I kept dishing assists to Megan and taking her passes after she cleared the boards.
I also wondered what the future would hold for Megan. Would she find the support and encouragement to continue in athletics, giving her the strength and self-esteem needed to play on an unequal field where men out-earn their female counterparts by an average of 30% and where a woman has to hustle twice as hard to achieve the same rank?
At the start of the new millennium, we still haven’t reached equality among the sexes–although the world of triathlon may offer a vision to those ends. In triathlon, we test our mettle on a stage where the best women in Ironman races show equal amounts of endurance, drive, and determination as the men. You don’t have to go far down the list of race results before the names of female competitors start mixing in among the males.
Then why do we call the race an Ironman? What about the Ironwomen who have shaped our sport and have had to battle for equal prize money and equal coverage? We all know that the women, such as Julie Moss, Erin Baker, Paula Newby-Fraser, Lori Bowden, Wendy Ingrahm, Sian Welch, Karen Smyers, and the endless list of other female triathletes from professionals looking to make the Olympics to amateurs raising families and working full-time jobs, have worked equally as hard as their male counterparts and have played just as integral a role in shaping our sport.
I have yet to see an Ironman coverage on TV that pays as much attention to the female competitors as the males, unless they’ve collapsed on the ground and are crawling to the finish. I’ll admit that I stopped watching the coverage a few years ago, though, having given up in frustration.
In the recent Sydney Olympics, we saw Michellie Jones, Brigitte McMahon, and the US women, Joanna Zeiger, Sheila Taormina, and Jennifer Gutierrez, put on a splendid display of sportswomanship and athleticism. Beyond the showcase of the first ever Olympic triathlon, we saw Darra Torres and Jenny Thompson in the pool, Marion Jones and Cathy Freeman on the track, to take a small sample from the slew of events that glimmer in the spotlight every four years. If only that type of coverage of women’s sports took place more than two weeks out of every four years. During the typical week we turn on the TV to see men playing football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or arguing politics in Congress.
So how does triathlon fit into the bigger equation? I’m better at asking the questions than answering them, but I hope that Megan turns her basketball fitness into a love of endurance sports and will one day compete in an Ironwoman event during time off from a career where she earns an equal paycheck as her male counterparts and receives the same amount of coverage for her feat. Maybe if more young females could be exposed to the stories of our women triathletes, we could help shape a future society where the struggle for self-esteem and self-worth is a moot issue among adolescent girls, and boys grow up with Ironwomen as role models.