Gender in Sports: Female Athletes

Female athletes have competed at least as long as there have been recorded histories of athletic competitions. In the period prior to 1900, women enjoyed a long history of participation in sports ranging from running to sailing and swimming. It was the general societal recognition of female athletic talent and achievements that traveled a far more tortuous road. At the first of the ancient Olympics in 776 BC, female competitors were barred from the competition; married women were not allowed in the stadium as spectators. Women organized their own games in homage to the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, competitions that took place every four years for at least four centuries.

Baron de Coubertin (1863–1937) was the driving force behind the birth of the modern Olympic Games. De Coubertin was as opposed to female Olympic participation as the ancient Greeks had been. There were no events for women in the first modern Games of 1896, and in very small increments in the succeeding 100-year period, women's athletics was slowly developed into an almost equal partner to men's Olympic competitions in both the summer and winter Games.

Diverse circumstances drove the popularity of women's sports in the world beyond the Olympics, particularly in North America. Team sports such as softball, volleyball, soccer, and basketball, at both the amateur levels of high school and university competition, as well as several professional individual female athletes in tennis, golf, and figure skating, created a heightened interest in these sports.

The greater public awareness of elite female athletes generated a corresponding increase in grassroots sports participation. Title IX, the American legislative initiative that reinforced the notion of funding equality in the support of male and female university sports, represented legislative confirmation that female athletic status was firmly entrenched. In Europe and in Australia, there existed a similar recognition of female athletics by the 1980s. It remains to be seen if the perception that women's sports are less entertaining and less skillful than those of men will be entirely eradicated over time.

Female sport involves physiological elements that have the potential to impact performance. The desire to have children is often a significant factor that influences the career of a female competitor. Time away from training, coupled with inevitable changes to body shape, is often a circumstance that is a barrier to the return of an athlete to high-level competition. In sports such as Alpine skiing, basketball, volleyball, and running events, the risk of a female athlete sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in the knee is as much as five times greater than that to a male athlete. The relatively wider pelvic structure of the female athlete than that of the male, in comparison to the length of the femur, as well as common imbalances occurring in quadriceps muscle and hamstring strength, all contribute to these serious knee injuries, which will often require reconstructive surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.

Female volleyball players during the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece.

There is a further set of conditions that sometimes impact female athletes that are an outgrowth of a combination of physical factors and the social pressures that women face. These conditions are commonly referred to as the "female triad," representing three discrete circumstances that can significantly inhibit the female athlete. Disordered eating is a problem that is usually revealed as one of anorexia nervosa (a refusal to eat) or of bulimia (eating, often in an uncontrolled binging fashion, followed by deliberate vomiting or purging by laxatives). Disordered eating may arise when female athletes, often in their teenage years, seek to lose weight to either improve performance, to meet apparent body type demands of the sport, or the stated expectations of their coach concerning the appearance of the athlete.

Amenorrhea is the loss, or the irregular occurrence, of the athlete's menstrual period, triggered by a decrease in the amount of estrogen present in the body. Estrogen is the hormone produced to regulate menstruation. Regular menstruation will result in the female athlete being required to pay close attention to her iron levels; iron lost through menstruation can contribute to anemia.

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the density and the strength of the skeletal bones are reduced, usually due to a dietary deficiency. The mineral calcium is of chief importance to bone and tooth formation. In combination with vitamin D, calcium is required in the construction of bone cells and the repair of any damage to the bone structure.

SEE ALSO Eating disorders in athletes; Knee injuries; Nutrition; IX and United States female sports participation; Women and sports: Exercise data, goals, and guidelines.