ASHLAND, ORE. — When Margaret "Tiger" MacGregor climbs into the ring to square off against Loi Chow tomorrow night in Seattle, boxing fans will see a historic encounter - the first officially sanctioned prizefight between a man and a woman.
Some are calling it a breakthrough for women athletes, another barrier cracked in the world of sport. Others say it's a farce and a travesty.
Regardless of the outcome, the episode highlights the recent advancements of women. More amateur and professional sports opportunities are available, and women are closing the gap with men in personal performance.
All of which raises an intriguing question: As more women are drawn to serious sport, training from early girlhood on in an atmosphere of growing public approval, will they eventually be able to compete directly with men?
In some ways, they already are.
Today, it is not unheard of for women to beat men in long-distance swimming competitions. Over the past 20 years, the women's world marathon record has dropped 10 minutes for the 26.2 mile race. It has taken world-class male marathoners 10 years longer than that just to shave two minutes and 30 seconds off their record. In some track and field events as well - the pole vault and triple jump, for example - women are steadily narrowing the gap with men.
In the Midwest this summer, southpaw pitcher Ila Borders racked up an exceptional earned-run average of 1.67 for the Madison, Wis., Black Wolf minor league baseball team - until now an all-male organization. "Everybody tells me I don't belong out there," she says. "Sometimes it gets to me, but no one's going to run me off."
Part of this has to do with society's advancing view of women in fields traditionally thought to be outside their realm.
Even the United States Army is finding that just about anything a male GI can do, a female soldier can do just as well - including the tough physical jobs that define "grunt."
Says the Women's Sports Foundation: "With enough strength training, women can lift, carry, and march as well as men. [Army researchers] say 78 percent of female volunteers they tested could qualify for Army jobs considered 'very heavy,' involving the occasional lifting of 100 pounds after six months of training 90 minutes, five days a week."
'Battle of the sexes'
Today's generation of women athletes also have many true sports heroes they can look to for advice and inspiration, people like Hall of Fame tennis player Billie Jean King (who beat Bobby Riggs in the famed 1973 "battle of the sexes" at the Houston Astrodome).
"Natural talent only determines the limits of your athletic potential. It's dedication, a willingness to learn, and discipline in your life that makes you great," says Ms. King. She started the Women's Sports Foundation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing opportunities for girls and women in sports and fitness through education, advocacy, recognition, and grants.
Sports physiologists suggest that there are physical limits to women vs. men competition. For the most part, top female athletes will never have the upper-body strength of their male counterparts. On the other hand, women do very well compared with men in endurance sports like long-distance running. Their greater buoyancy points to their excelling in long-distance swimming, even beating men as Australian Shelley Taylor-Smith does.
Still, the best men's time for the grueling marathon is nearly 15 minutes better than the women's record, and women may be catching up faster because that's easier to do in the earlier years of serious competition. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that women who tried to run the Boston Marathon were dragged from the course by outraged race officials.
In the Portland (Ore.) Marathon last Sunday, enthusiastic spectators watched Kyra Slade power across the finish line, qualifying for the Canadian Olympic Trials. "Look at all the men she's beat!" said one woman.
Whether or not women eventually beat men regularly on field, track, and court, they have demonstrated their ability to excel in male-dominated sports.
The best example may be ice hockey, where finesse and teamwork are more important than bone-jarring board checks outlawed in women's hockey.
And with professional leagues of their own in such sports as basketball, hockey, and baseball (struggling though such leagues might be for sponsorship and TV time), there is no longer as much impetus to break into men's professional sports organizations.
In the wake of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law prohibiting sexual discrimination by school districts that receive federal education money, girls have made considerable progress in sports.
The year before the law was passed, only about 4 percent of all high school girls played sports. Today, nearly one-third do. The number of American women competing in the Olympic Games has doubled over the past 12 years.
For all their recent accomplishments, women still have a long way to go to achieve parity in amateur and professional sports. Women's athletic operations and recruiting dollars account for only about one-fourth the total at colleges and universities. At McCallum High School in Austin, Texas, a groups of parents has filed a complaint under Title IX, alleging that the school district provides better facilities and more support for boys' baseball than it does for girls' softball.
When the American soccer team won the Women's World Cup earlier this year, team star Mia Hamm appeared in Nike commercials dominating basketball superstar Michael Jordan in several sports. The ad's slogan was "Anything you can do, I can do better."
Not can they, but should they?
Not everyone agrees that women should compete with men - even if they can.
"You're supposed to open doors for women, not try to beat them up," grumbles former Washington State boxing commissioner Dale Ashley. For her part, Ms. MacGregor - who's already won 11 matches against female pugilists - sounds as confident as Muhammad Ali did in his heyday.
In the end, of course, athletic accomplishment is far more than any "battle of the sexes," be it on the tennis court or in the boxing ring.
"What's the measure we all set for ourselves?" asks speed skater Bonnie Blair, winner of five Olympic gold medals. "It's all relative. It's just a matter of giving your personal best."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society