Sunday, February 16, 2014

Girls and boys go out to play by Ian Walker (New Society 18/25 December 1980)

Girls and boys go out to play

At the Olympic opening ceremony, straight-backed young Soviet men carried the flags and looked noble. The girls, all got up like ballerinas, smiled and did the quickstep with Mischa the bear. Women dressed as geishas held out medals on plates and old men in suits dished them out. The rituals have not kept pace with the times, especially those being recorded by women. Performances got so good a while back, the authorities figured these women must be men (here, take a sex test). Someday the struggle for sexual supremacy will be fought out in the swimming pool and on the race track. This is a preview of the Big Match.

"Boy meets girl," a coach says to a mother down to collect her daughter from the week of training sponsored by Guinness at the Crystal Palace. "You lose 'em that way. Then a girl goes out to work, don't feel like training at night. You lose 'em that way too." Mother looks worried. She wants her daughter to be a star. Daley Thompson, whose first name then was Francis, was on this course in 1975.

Some of the present generation of teenage hopefuls, here in the cafe at Crystal Palace, are now listening to the managing director of Guinness drone on about enthusiasm and commitment, qualities necessary in both sport and business. Guinness is good for you. Sport is good for business. Henry Cooper and Barry Sheene, a tough guy and a daredevil, wield Brut phalluses on billboards nationwide. Don't worry. You can wear aftershave and still shape up to the guy eyeing your property in the bar on a Saturday night, "Here, mate. You clocking my bird?" Thwack. Smell sweet and be strong.

"I don't believe it," says Suzanne Powell, a young hurdler, when I ask if she thinks girls drop out of athletics more quickly than boys. "I intend to get married, but I shan't give up sport. That woman who won the gold in the 1500, she had a baby a couple of years ago. She broke four minutes."

Most of the young athletes on the Guinness course have now been taken away by their parents, but Suzanne is sitting here with Gary Pullen, both are from High Wycombe athletics club, watching an older male gymnast on the floor flex his muscles for the benefit of the young girl gymnasts sitting at his feet. Suzanne is doing A levels (psychology, human biology and sociology) and Gary left school last year to become a turner. They are both 17. They both think some young athletes are made to peak too early.

Suzanne is in the 400 metres hurdles squad. Gary, who has represented Britain in the long jump, says he can do 7m 22cm. "That's twenty three feet, eight and a quarter inches," he says. These two will be training five nights a week throughout the winter. "It's hard when you're soaking wet and all and it's snowing," says Gary. "Didn't get much snow last year though did we?" Behind us, the basketball players are saying goodbye with soul brother handshakes. (The three black Americans who stuck black leather fists in the air in '68 live out their middle age in poverty. Black football stars advertise Chevrolets on TV.)

I walk down from the gallery at Crystal Palace, sit watching the adolescent sex games in the swimming pool: fighting and splashing and tugging, and who knows what may happen when we both go underwater together? Sport is sexy and children learn fast, learn too the ways of life built round the heterosexual thrill. Girls make tea for their boyfriends playing rugby and football on Saturday mornings in school.

A teenage boy turning heads in the diving pool has also been on the Guinness coaching course. Evenly tanned, one earring, Mr Cool, he makes everyone else look all white and gangly. He bounces and somersaults, penetrates the water with scarcely a ripple. The other boy divers, third raters, look like they've had sand kicked in their face.

Winner of a bronze medal for diving in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Elizabeth Ferris has since become a doctor, a broadcaster and academic expert on the physiological and ideological aspects of sport and the sexes. Her sport, diving, she tells me in the kitchen at her Holland Park flat, doesn't disturb notions of femininity, "Graceful, balletic and so on. But if I look at some of the journalists' descriptions of me. Pretty, agile, elfin, blonde, blue eyed. Always those physical details. I didn't look as if I was about to expire or anything." Or perspire? "Or perspire. Whatever."

Dr Ferris became politicised through TV, "a very male-dominated industry," first working alongside Jimmy Hill ("who was terrific, not a bit sexist") at LWT and then at ATV, researching a documentary series on women, No Man's Land. She has since applied herself to demonstrating that physiology is not the main obstacle to women's progress in sport, "It became very interesting," she says, "to juxtapose what people thought women were capable of and what women were clearly showing themselves to be capable of."

Up to 1972, women weren't allowed to run further in the Olympics than 400 metres. Now it's going up to 1,500. But it is in stamina events like the marathon that women have made the most dramatic progress. In 1963 the percentage difference between the men's and women's world records in the marathon was 37.21; by 1979 it had gone down to 12.80. "The reason for women not doing the longer events is that it's too strenuous," she smiles. "No one ever asked a man to produce medico-scientific evidence he could do anything in sport." And no one ever asked a man to produce a sperm sample to prove he was a real man before he could compete.

"Women who fail the sex test," says Elizabeth Ferris, "can be perfectly developed in every way. It's just that they won't have ovaries and they'll be sterile."

Dr Ferris's expertise has, like her diving ability before, brought her travel and prestige. She stood in for Simone De Beauvoir, who was unable to give the opening address, at an International Congress on Women in Rome this July. Last October she told a conference in Dublin a story about eight women on an American expedition to Annapurna in the Himalayas, in 1978. The men, as ever, were concerned about the women: their ability to withstand altitudes and stress, their susceptibility to frostbite. Seven out of eight women reached the summit and none got frostbite. Five men got frostbite on the penis.

"Mario Andretti, he always used to grab hold of my jeans, I always wear baggy jeans like this," says Divina Galica, Britain's leading woman motor racer, 'I know you've got balls in there somewhere.' That's a Mario Andretti joke. He is quite amusing." We're sitting in the basement of her flat, in a street just behind Harrods. An ex-Olympic skier, Divina says she learned how to ski at a school in Switzerland. A finishing school? "Well, I didn't finish. I suppose you could get finished there." After a spell selling skiing kit in Lillywhites, she opened her own skiing boutique and then, in 1974, got a telephone call: did she want to take part in a charity race at Brands Hatch? In 1977 she became the first woman ever to drive in a Formula One race.

Possessing the glamour which attracts to the possibility of death, motor racing must be the ultimate machismo sport. Sport as war (this relationship was inverted in Apocalypse Now). How do the men drivers feel about her joining in the battle? "It did go on, the leg pulling," she says. "But now they realise . . . I love the sport and I'm quite good at it. They accept me as a driver. The flattering thing is they're usually quite chuffed to beat me."

A beneficiary, but not an advocate, of the women's liberation movement, Divina thinks that women must do whatever they believe they're best at. "If they think they're best at being mothers and helping their husbands to succeed . . . I'm not a women's libber as such. Some people don't actually want equality. I know stacks of very happy housewives. I mean, I know some very frustrated ones, too. After all, it's a free world, you know. Well, I shouldn't say it's a free world because half the world isn't free, is it?"

Balletic men
And if women want to be groupies, hang out at the grand prix? "They get what they want out of grand prix. I get what I want. You do get some incredibly beautiful girls at the grand prix. I'm not sure quite what it is that attracts them all." Divina being a racing driver is about as big a blow for liberation as Margaret Thatcher being Prime Minister. A hearty public school girl with a taste for excitement, she is well aware that what she's doing wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago. "If you were single and over 30 then, they'd say, oh, she's bound to be queer and that kind of thing."

Homophobia is of course still rife in sport, journalists reach for inverted commas to describe East European "women" athletes. But if women have become more powerful, so men have become more graceful. Men's gymnastics are a sight more balletic these days, yet no one suggest these men are effeminate. The ice-skating gold medalist in the '76 Olympics, John Curry, was so beautifully camp it sometimes threw the interviewers. Rather than signing off with the usual manly, "Thanks David," John Curry would smile and say, "Bye bye."

Unlike people, horses have always run against each other, male and female, as equals . . . I'm thinking on the train to Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire, to watch Ruth Armstrong ride La Fille in the 2.45 Novices Hurdle. Her sex was disguised by the purple and yellow silks, her hair swept back into a white jockey's cap. She came in fourth.

I talked to her afterwards in the bar, asked why was billed Ruth Armstrong on the jockeys' board where all the men riders had initials followed by surnames, B. Normal and so on. "That's so people can see I'm a girl," she says. "Can't say Miss or Mrs or Mr 'cos that means you're an amateur. They put that so people'll know I'm a girl, not a lad." Why do they need to know? "Don't know. Just for the public, I suppose."

Ruth is 18 and has been working in Jack Berry's stables in Cockerham near Blackpool, her home town, since she was 16. She isn't just a jockey. "I work at the yard as well. Look after four horses in the yard. Muck 'em out. Feed 'em. Ride 'em in the morning. Take them training." She starts at 7.30 in the morning and finishes around six. She gets £30 a week. This morning she drove the horse-box down from Cockerham and she'll drive it back tonight too.

As good as the lads
If she hadn't got the job at Jack Berry's she's have gone round the world, sailing with her father. He went anyway. She now has a dentist for a stepfather. Why is she into racing horses? "Oh, the danger I suppose. A challenge. Show you're as good as the lads, like."

"Are you a feminist?"

"What's one of them?"

"Someone who's in favour of women's liberation."

"All right them," she grins, sipping her Britvic orange.

I ask what her friends in Blackpool make of her job? "Most of them are horrified, I think," she says. "They're all working at offices and that. They think it's a bit unladylike and all the rest of it." Showjumping has always been eminently respectable for women. But racing> Flying around at speed with your arse in the air? Oh dear.

She looks at her watch. Time to get changed for the 4.45. "Can I have a copy of the magazine to show my boss?" she says. "Otherwise he'll just think I'm chatting someone up." She disappears. Further along the bar I see Emlyn Hughes, England international footballers and nicknamed Crazy Horse. He still calls his ex-manager Bill Shankly (deified in Hughes' autobiography this year) "the boss." Even the superstars know their place.

In the grandstand during the next race 200 pairs of binoculars pressed against faces move slowly in harmony. Bizarre. It reminds me of a situationist poster: a blown-up photograph of a 1950s cinema audience all wearing 3-D glasses. You want reality? Adjust the focus. You want a conclusion? At the end of the day it's goals that count.
18/25 December 1980



1 comment:

Darren said...

Walker's original article lists Divina Galica as Davina Galica, but wiki says otherwise. I'm going with wiki this time.