Non-Traditional Sports: Social Barriers

Non-Traditional Sports: Social Barriers

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Non-Traditional Sports: Social Barriers


Gender barriers have always existed in the field of sports. I will be focusing specifically on women in the field of bodybuilding and men who enter synchronized swimming in order to illustrate the social and cultural costs and benefits of these individuals entering their given sports.

Breaking Barriers:

The gym is the world of gods and heroes, goddesses larger than life, a place of incantations where our bodies inflate and we shuffle off our out-of-gym bodies like discarded skins and walk about transformed. . . . Here, in this space, we begin to grow, to change. The transformation has begun, and our flawed humanity is falling off fast. We are picking up our shoulders, elevating our chins, shaking ugliness from our shoulders with a series of strokes, the glistening dumbbells, listening to our blood's rush. Our pasty misshapen bodies are developing clean lines. Our day's tribute of trials and heartaches is fading, for here, in this gym space, we become kings and queens. Larger, invincible, gods in ourselves. (Introduction, Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women's Body Building)


Women in bodybuilding is a recent phenomenon. It is an example of the cultural transformation and revolution that has been in the process for many years now. Leslie Heywood, the author of the quote above, is an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghamton. As stated by a critic of her recent book, Bodymakers, "Heywood looks at the sport and image of female body building as a metaphor for how women fare in our current political and cultural climate. Drawing on contemporary feminist and cultural theory as well as her own involvement in the sport, she argues that the movement in women's bodybuilding from small, delicate bodies to large powerful ones and back again is directly connected to progress and backlash within the abortion debate, the ongoing struggle for race and gender equality, and the struggle to define "feminism" in the context of the nineties. She discusses female bodybuilding as activism, as an often effective response to abuse, race and masculinity in body building, and the contradictory ways that photographers treat female bodybuilders." It is evident from this brief yet descriptive narration of her book that Heywood believes both cultural costs and benefits of women in the sport of bodybuilding exist, as well as in any other field in which women push the restraints of social acceptance.

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Women who take on the struggle of competing in a male dominated sport not only strain their bodily capacities to the max, but work to overcome the politics and derogatory images that are associated with female competitors. The costs of women in the sport of bodybuilding are not extremely noticeable. The athletes are the ones who carry the burden of the costs related to their participation in these fields. However, the benefits of these athletes are numerous, leading to a wider acceptance of all competitors in any sport available.

While bodybuilding is a sport in which women have become pioneers, synchronized swimming is one in which few men have really become dedicated to, let alone pioneers in. One man that is breaking barriers and enlightening people on the benefits and costs of men entering non-traditional sports is Bill May. He became interested in the sport at the age of nine, when he joined his sister's synchronized swimming class for lack of anything else to do. Since then he has become addicted to the sport, and has moved to CA where he thrived in the company of his teammates, the Aquamaids. A brief history... synchronized swimming has taken its share of banter since the event's installation to the Olympics in 1984. Many people were apprehensive about calling it a sport and including it among such classics as the javelin throw, the shot-put, and the 100m dash. However, up until the year 2000, FINA, the governing body of world swimming, was unwilling to allow men to participate in the sport along side their fellow female athletes. As the Aquamaids, along with their numerous supporters, have noted is the fact that, along with bodybuilding and wrestling, synchronized swimming is a gender-barred sport, and as is also the case with bodybuilding and wrestling, there are no real physical reasons for this, only mental ones. So, May's participation in this female-oriented sport is a perfect case of a support given to the world of athletics, and the social and cultural benefits that have resulted because of his actions. As Aquamaids and U.S. Olympic coach Chris Carver says, "I train athletes, not males or females. The political aspects of this thing are not my concern."

While Carver's idealism is admirable, I believe that the political aspects of sports are in fact everyone's concern, however ridiculous their implications may be. It has only been through the determination of women and men alike who have broken down the cultural barriers of certain sports that athletics have become a field of greater social acceptance than ever before. While some find the extreme look of women bodybuilders competing a bit much or the sight of men doing "ballet" in a pool full of women a bit ludicrous, there must always be a more extreme ideal pushing the limits.
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