By BONNIE ERBE
True or false: The better women and girls fare in athletics, the more threatened boys and men appear. Decide for yourself, after reading this little ditty from Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"One day after Quaker Valley High School tennis player Annie Houghton became the first girl to win a Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League boys’ championship, representatives of the league urged schools to come up with their own rules that might stop gender crossing in high school sports."
Don’t mistake this statement for a caterwauling cry for nonstop, gender-neutral sports. To be fair, I have yet to take a definitive stand on gender crossing in sport. For the most part, I see great benefits for boys and girls who compete on same-gender teams and in same-gender sports. It’s particularly true after puberty, when the male hormone, androgen, kicks in and nature triggers a male muscle mass explosion, which girls never experience.
Competition against one’s own gender builds confidence, teamwork and boosts all kids’ self-esteem in a way that cross gender sports cannot. But does that mean girls with incredible athletic prowess should be barred from boys’ teams, or boys should be jettisoned from girls’ teams, even when their schools don’t offer boys’ teams in the boy’s sport of choice? That seems just as silly.
This question of competitiveness is posed against a curtain of changing men’s and women’s athletic abilities. Women are catching up to men, particularly in sports where fine motor skills, training and technique trump muscle mass.
The New York Times reported in 2003, "Julie Krone won more than 3,500 races in her career as a jockey and, in 1993, became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, aboard Colonial Affair in the Belmont Stakes. Shirley Muldowney became the first person to win three national championships driving top fuel dragsters. Susan Butcher won the Iditarod sled-dog race four times."
Running is a sport in which gender time differences are evaporating. Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia holds the men’s world record for the fastest 10K race; 27:02, set in December 2002. The female world record holder, Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, is just more than three minutes behind him. She ran a 10k race in 30:21, in February 2003, as reported by the Association of International Marathons and Road Races. Radcliffe also won the Chicago Marathon in October 2002 in 2 hours 17 minutes 18 seconds, shattering the women’s world record by more than a minute and moving the women’s standard closer than ever before to the men’s.
As these differences erode, some experts speculate that improved training and coaching of women athletes will eliminate them entirely. Others call that a long-shot fantasy.
Then, of course, there are the Michelle Wies of the world (teen golf glory girl) who earns male wages and wants to play on the men’s tour because that’s where the money is. Is it mere coincidence that just as Annie Houghton threw the Quaker Valley High tennis world into a tizzy, Wie accepted a sponsor’s exemption to play in the PGA 84 Lumber Classic in Farmington, Pa., next fall?
Maybe there is a god and she’s having a good laugh at Pennsylvania’s expense. If so, her humor has yet to faze the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. More than 100 league athletic directors were urged at their annual meeting this past week to divine gender crossing policies (of the "don’t cross" kind). Neither the WPIAL nor the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has a rule that prohibits boys from playing girls’ sports or vice versa. The message was: come up with one, and quickly.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)