The myths come tumbling down

"See No. 13?" The sneakered eight-year-old boy points across the basketball court, impatiently waiting for his sidekick to pay attention. "See her? Wow! What a shot!"

No. 13, unmindful of her admirers, grabs a wayward pass and pounds douwn court, wheeling and dealing her way to another two points.

Ten years ago -- fivem years ago -- no self-respecting boy would dare be caught admiring the jump shot of a female player. But women's sports have grown quickly in size, along with huge leaps in skill levels. And the best is yet to come.

And No. 13, with her blazing outside shooting and spider-armed defense, is in the middle of it all.

She could barely read when Kathrine Switzer ran into history in the 1967 Boston Marathon. She was in junior high school when Billie jean King aced Bobby Riggs. She grew up with Title IX and equal opportunity and everyone trying out for Little League.

Now here she is, driving and blocking and sparking her team, St. John's University, in this regional playoff for the national title in women's collegiate basketball. Who knows? Maybe next year she'll be drafted into the professional Women's Basketball League.

Wilma Rudolph. Nancy Lopez. Chris Evert-Lloyd. Janet Guthrie. Grete Waitz. The roster is growing. More and more female athletes are becoming household names. Beth Heiden. And Billie Jean King -- despite her recent troubles --

Right now we say "female athlete" the way we say "male nurse." But that's fast becoming an anachronism. They're just athletes. Highly skilled ones.

And lots of them. In the past 10 years, the number of women playing intercollegiate sports has increased 250 percent, the Women's Sports Foundation says. In high schools, the increase is 600 percent -- wait until theym reach college. (During that same time, boy's numbers increased about 13 percent.) All this, mind you, in the days of dwindling school enrollments.

Nowadays, females constitute one-third of all interscholastic or intercollegiate athletes -- and a full 44 percent of all intramural athletes. The average college has doubled the number of sports it offers women -- and scrounged upm thousands of dollars to fund them.

A survey by Seventeen magazine two years ago found that nearly every girl played some kind of sport, and about half of them competed. About 150,000 girls play soccer, 750 percent more than just five years ago, says the United States Youth Soccer Federation. And Little League officials figure that somewhere around 20,000 girls will play baseball this summer, and another 200,000 to 300, 000 will play softball.

The boom hasn't been confined to schools, either. Most of the major sporting goods manufacturers are offering equipment tailored especially for women, and 50 other, smaller companies are following suit, estimated David Morse, owner of a women's sporting goods shop in Cambridge, Mass. His shop is one of 10 or so scattered around the country which cater exclusively to female athletes.

Six years ago in Boston, about 35 teams played softball in a city league. Last year, 130 teams competed in three divisions. Recreational basketball has grown fivefold in the same time. The National Jogging Association reports that about half of its 35,000 members are women. Over 700 women followed Allison Roe across the finish line in the Boston Marathon last month.

The Women's Sports Foundation totes up 16 existing professional organizations for women -- most of which were founded in the 1970s. Martina Navratilova earned $618,698 in 1979 -- only eight years after Billie Jean King became the first woman in anym sport to earn more than $100,000. Chris Evert Lloyd took $2, 655,681 to the bank between 1973 and '79.

Where did it all come from? It's combination of the general prosperity after World War II, allowing more time and money for leisure, and the civil rights movement and women's movement of the '60s, which widened opportunities for women in many directions, says Betty Spears, professor of sports studies at the University of Massachusetts. Suddenly it was possible -- and acceptable -- for more than just a few women to play sports.

Or, more accurately, possible againm . The thundering herds of female joggers in the '70s were simply following in the tracks of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who hiked up their skirts and rode off on bicycles back in the late 1800s in what Dr. Spears calls the "greatest breakthrough" for women in sports.

That, coupled with the advent of colleges for women (founded in part for the stated purpose of improving the health of women through exercise to prove they were capable of handling a college education), propelled women into sports through the 1920s. Mary Outerbridge brought tennis to the United States in 1874 , and in just a few years women were competing in it -- along with rowing, field hockey, and, in 1891, one year behind the men, basketball. Intercollegiate championships sprang up, and by the '20s there was a whole team of stars. When Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in 1926 and smashed the men's record by two hours, it looked as though nothing could stop the momentum -- except a depression and a world war.

Here and there a woman would make sports history --Babe Didrikson, for sure, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph. But by and large, little girls hung up their sneakers, or traded them for saddle shoes to cheer on the boys once they hit their teens.

The few who hung on usually concentrated on sports "acceptable" for women, abandoning their first loves. Billie Jean King, for example, longed to be a shortstop:

"When I was a little girl, I'd sit there watching baseball . . . and I'd go, 'It'd be fun to be a shortstop,' and all of a sudden I realized they were all boys on the field. And I said to my mom and dad, 'I can't be a baseball player, I'm a girl.' Already my world was more limited. . . . I wanted a career in sports. I asked my parents what would be a good one and they said either golf, tennis, or swimming"

The country club sports. The ones that women, stuffed back into the home after World War II, could enjoy on leisurely afternoons.

But from these genteel surroundings have come locker rooms full of record-breaking, stereotype-smashing athletes.

It's almost chicken-and-egg-like trying to roll backm through the years to figure out how it all started. Maybe it did start with one lone moment in sport. Maybe it was Kathrine Switzer running 26 miles and showing all women they could too. Maybe it was Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman demanding equal pay for woman tennis players. Maybe it was President Kennedy's emphasis on fitness that got everybody huffing and puffing 600 yards around the track.

Or maybe it started with the social rumblings where women demanded equal pay, equal rights, equal opportunity. And equal time in that male bastion, the gym.

And as women took the field, myths began to crumble. Like the one that told 15-year-old girls that they were at their physical peak. This self-perpetuating myth thrived on telling girls it was unladylike to be athletic, shaming them into inactivity until, in fact, their physical condition did deteriorate -- while males, encouraged, if not forced, to play sports, continued to improve physically.

That myth was "not based on anything," says Barbara Drinkwater, an exercise physiologist. All of her tests at the Institute of Environmental Stress at the University of California at Santa Barbara have shown that women of all ages are in no way less suited for strenuous activity than are men. Data she has collected show that active women continue to improve years beyond the midteens.

She has found that women seem to be better able to withstand heat, often a significant factor in sporting events. Women also have greater reserves of fat and appear to be better able to turn it into energy, giving them greater endurance. The fat is also a definite advantage in long-distance swimming, giving women added buoyancy and insulation.

Where men as a group are superior is in sheer strength . Their muscle mass is simply larger.

All of this suggests that women, while certainly able to compete in any sport , are better suited for events demanding endurance.

Six days after placing second and setting a new US women's marathon record in Boston, Patti Lyons Catalano sailed to a first-place finish among the women in a 10-mile race in New York, nearly equaling her own US record for the distance. She also cruised in a full 55 minutes ahead of a thoroughly exhausted Craig Virgin in that New York race --

In 1979, Harvard law student Lyn Lemaire finished fifth out of 15 starters in the Iron Man competition in Hawaii, an event that combines 140 miles of swimming , cycling, and running. She feels that as the distances get longer, women and men compete more evenly. Although she personally doubts that women will beat men, she points out that it's hard to gauge potential.

"It's such a small pool of women doing it," she says. "Who knows how many Bill Rodgerses are out there keeping house?"

Says Kathrine Switzer, who now directs the women's sports programs sponsored by Avon, "The marathon is too short." She thinks women and men run neck and neck at about 40 miles, and that women will outrun men at 60 miles.

Dr. Drinkwater resists drawing comparisons between the abilities of men and women. It's the value to the individual that is important, she points out. She worries that comparisons will just say to women that "it's not worth do ing if you can't do it better than the men."

In fact, researchers say, it is very much worth doing, no matter how good you are. At Penn State, Dr. Dorothy Harris, who directs the Research Center for Women in Sport, has concluded that as little as a 10-week exercise program dramatically helps chronically depressed women.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Harris considers the development of running programs in the last decade of great significance to women.

"Running has gotten more women physically active than any other activity," she says. "You start by putting one foot in front of the other. If you keep doing it, you get better at it. Then that begins to influence everything you do."

Or, as Katherine Switzer found, "I can run a marathon.m I can do anything."m

Along with the 15-years-old-and-over-the-hill myth is the one that says athletic women become physically masculinized. No research has supported this myth.

What does seem common, Dr. Harris notes, is that many woman athletes feel free to exhibit both supposedly "masculine" and "feminine or masculine." their personalities.

The result, says Dr. Harris, is happier people, who have "significantly higher self-esteem than do these [people] classified as traditionally feminine or masculine."

As the myths fell, more women competed. It's a rather nice closed circle: Women become active, disprove the myths, and inspire more women to become active.

And as more and more women poured out of the bleachers and onto the court, they needed places to practice and play, equipment, coaching, and funding. Women's sports had to grow up very fast.

One measure of that growth is the fragility of women's records: They are always being broken. The oldest women's world record in track and field dates back only to mid1976 (several of the men's records have stood since 1968), an indication of the rapid improvement in training and performance in recent years. Since 1964, women marathoners have lopped one hourm off the world record, while the men's record (which has stood since 1969) has dropped but about 12 minutes.

No small part of this record-shattering is due to the improved quality and quantity of training and coaching avail able to women in recent years. But a trend that disturbs some in the field is the growing number of men who are coaching women.

Dr. Bonnie Parkhouse of the University of Southern California considers this troublesome for several reasons: It denies role models to young female athletes, and it denies coaching opportunites to women.

Data collected by Dr. Parkhouse and Milton G. Holmen show that from 1974 to 1979 the number of coaching positions in women's collegiate sports increased 37 percent, but the percentage of women in those jobs actually declined. One of the most significant findings was the trend toward hiring male head coaches. The number of female head coaches in 1979 was smaller than in 1974, despite the increase in total number of positions.

While their study was not designed to pinpoint causes, the authors have several theories: There might be a shortage of qualified female coaches. Or it could be a continuation of the old practice of hiring a qualified man instead of an equally qualified woman.

As women's programs have become richer, salaries have become comparable to those of men's programs. Dr. Parkhouse also muses that some of these male coaches might be ones who couldn't make it in men's programs, which have experienced little growth in recent years, and gladly stepped into the gap in the rapidly expanding women's programs.

"The athletic director is between a rock and a hard place," Dr. Parkhouse says. "The AD has to produce winning teams, but you can't do that without people with the technical skills." It is the male coaches who right now have the technical skills.

And as long as men hold those jobs, she points out, women will not gain the technical skills.

"What we need to do is train more women in technical skills and other areas of competence to compete in the marketplace with male counterparts."

She proposes a formal system of mentorship, giving women the opportunity to train under successful male coaches.

The biggest boost to women's sports unquestionably was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools. Proponents of this controversial legislation saw in it the pot of badly needed gold for women's sports, while it s opponents characterized it as the specter of destruction of big-time men's collegiate sports. In reality, Title IX has been neither dream nor nightmare. Women have gained -- some. Men have lost --a little. The squabbling over what Title IX means still continues, and will be detailed in the next part of this series.

The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was formed 10 years ago; today it boasts a comprehensive championship program and what it calls an "alternative approach" in athletics. It is prouc of its emphasis on the rights of the student-athlete and its downplay of recruiting and the accompanying problems that have beset men's organizations.

The AIAW has been walking a fine line between the traditional concept of women's sports -- everyone gets to play --notch competition.

For years, The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the largest governing body of men's sports, has given passing glances to women's sports. The growth of these sports in recent years, however, has attracted the full attention of the NCAA, which is now poised to inaugurate its own program of women's championships, a move welcomed by some and dreaded by others, especially the AIAW. Whether the NCAA is escorting women's sports toward new horizons or leading them down the primrose path is another controversy to be explored later in this series.

However the NCAA and the AIAW reconcile their differences, the outcome is sure to have a lasting effect on the future of sports in this country on all levels, not just the colleges. As college sports strengthen and professional sports opportunities slowly branch out from the traditional golf and tennis, women and men have the opportunity to rethink some very basic concepts in athletics. Some of these thoughts will be explored in the final part of this series.

Tomorrow: The joys and sorrows o Title IX

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The myths come tumbling down
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today