In praise of women, not Vijay

Published : Jun 07, 2003 00:00 IST

SO then, what do we do about Vijay Singh? Is he ours or isn't he?


SO then, what do we do about Vijay Singh? Is he ours or isn't he? Do we want to bask in the reflected glory of the former Masters champion, and claim his creative cunning has a Made in India stamp on it? Or are we going to shrug him off as a misogynist Fijian with faulty manners?

Of course, it's not so easy to separate the two. After all, his sexism when talking about Annika Sorenstam could just be his Indian chauvinism revealing itself.

Nevertheless, Vijay's refusal to be paired with the world's best women's golfer recently, his churlish hope that she missed the cut, is probably nothing but a fair reflection of what a host (not all) of male athletes feel about their female counterparts. Anyone, for instance, who hereby defines golf as a gentleman's game should be in line for a lobotomy. Or maybe golfers just confused chivalry with chauvinism.

No one should be surprised, for prejudice thrives in sport in a variety of forms. Sorenstam's desire to play in a men's event received powerful, and conspicuous, support from Tiger Woods not because they share the same agent. But because he, an African-American, understands keenly the nature of bigotry. After all, if Tiger were playing 30 years or so ago, he would not have been able to enter the Masters. Except as a caddie, or a waiter, of course.

Women have almost got used to facing prejudice in the sporting arena. It's a part of the package. It is rarely overt, often couched in sarcasm but is always belittling. It could be Wimbledon refusing to pay women equal prize money; John McEnroe once sneering in his book that his then girlfriend, a women's player, actually wanted him to come and watch her; or a former cricketer in India refusing women players an opportunity to practice at his academy.

When praise arrives often it is damningly gratituous. When Sorenstam played her first round at Colonial (and I watched), she was superb: she is admittedly not a player of imagination but one of control, and her preciseness was breathtaking. But it was not new, for how else had she dominated the women's tour for so long. Yet, there they were, some of the men players, going: `Oh, I didn't know she was that good. Switch on the TV, mate, watch the LPGA. They are all good'.

Equal prize money in tennis, for instance, has always been a contentious subject. In fact, Bobby Riggs' challenge to Billie Jean King was based on his premise that not only should women not get as much as men, but also less than old men like him who played on over-50 tours. King had no time for Riggs initially. As a fellow soldier, Rosie Casals, told Sports Illustrated then, women had no need to prove a point by beating "an old, obnoxious, has-been like Riggs, who can't hear, can't see, walks like a duck and is an idiot besides".

Still, when Riggs suckered Margaret Court into a contest and destroyed her, Billie Jean had no choice. The pressure was extraordinary: for Billie Jean to defeat the 55-year-old Riggs proved little; to lose would have been devastating. But she won, easily, and wrote later in her book: "I had shown thousands of people that women were skilful, entertaining and capable of coming through in the clutch".

Unquestionably, they are. Yet, 30 years later still the debate rages, still men's arguments remain fallacious. Men say if they play five sets they should get paid more. Do cricketers get paid more than footballers because they're out in the park longer? Are women refusing to play five sets? More telling is the fact that last year more NBC viewers watched the Wimbledon women's doubles final, won by the Williams sisters, than the Hewitt-Nalbandian men's final.

Indeed, when you weigh, Serena/Venus/Clijsters/Henin-Hardenne/Capriati/Davenport against Hewitt/Federer/Ferrero/Schuettler/Agassi/Moya, and compare them in terms of rivalry-competitiveness-personality, you can only arrive at one conclusion: the women should get paid more.

Women have done it tough, mounting a constant battle against their perceived weakness. In 1896, two women — Melpomene and Stamata Revithi — ran from Marathon to Athens, but were prevented from entering the Athens Olympic race. Attitudes did not change, and only 88 years later was the marathon finally included as a women's Olympic event.

Then, in 1984, at the time of the Olympics, the men's world best was 2.08.18; now it is 2.05.38, an improvement of 2 minutes 40 seconds. Then, in 1984, the women's world best was 2.22.43, now it is 2.15.25, an improvement of 7 minutes 18 seconds. Sure, it's one isolated example, but let's be clear: women have come, and are going, a long way.

Physiological differences have meant for a skewed equation when it comes to power. Men are stronger, that is irrefutable: they will drive the golf ball further, run quicker, kick a football harder, whack a tennis ball with more venom. It makes most male-female contests one-sided, but women accept that, they see no silly virtue in a battle of the sexes.

Sorenstam herself did not expect to win (ironically, she was undone by touch around the greens, not her driving, though she was the shortest on show), but like all great athletes sought to push the envelope of sporting possibility. It was not a statement for women's golf, but a champion's need to test herself. She called it her Everest, and she was attempting to climb it, as the great mountaineer George Mallory himself once said, "because it's there". That men reacted so strongly to a woman, who hardly posed as a rival, revealed little except pre-historic attitudes.

But lack of power does not necessarily make women less skilful or unattractive to watch. Forget Nadia Comaneci in gymnastics, or Fu Mingxia in diving, sports where men might argue that grace comes more naturally to women (it does, but in more ways than they know). Even in more athletic sports, women are forging new frontiers and holding us in thrall, whether it be Marion Jones, whose performances illuminated Sydney more than any track-and-field man; Mia Hamm, the gifted American soccer star; the Australian women's hockey team whose golden run was as sensational as any domination by any men's team; Inge de Bruijn who outshone even Ian Thorpe in the pool in Sydney; and even weightlifters back home like K. Malleswari.

Still, the fight to erase bias continues. In a way it was most telling at the end of the last century when polls and contests sprung up over who was the greatest sportsperson (as opposed to best male or female athlete) of the last 100 years. Ali, Bradman, Pele, Nicklaus, Lewis and Jim Thorpe's names predictably came up. Yet not often enough did we hear the name Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

In the 1930s, Babe was an All-American baseketball star, was a useful softball pitcher, held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events between 1930-32, won Olympic gold in 1932 in the javelin and 80-metre hurdles and was second in the high jump, played impressive billiards, then turned to golf and despite surgery for cancer, returned to win the US Open women's golf.

It's a pity she isn't around to have a chat with Vijay.

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