Opinion Piece

Marelise van der Merwe: The Other News Round-Up: Sumo other time, ladies

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s odder happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: Sumo is back in the headlines for banning women from participating.

Sumo wrestling, in recent weeks, has caught more news coverage internationally than it is used to. For starters, women giving medical assistance to a local mayor were asked to leave the ring. Then a female politician who was due to deliver a speech was asked, er, not to.

Traditionally, reports AFP, boys and girls have been allowed to get into the ring and “grapple with the sport’s famously hefty stars”, not necessarily something I’d do myself. But as equal opportunities go, the Japan Sumo Association recently announced it would be barring girls from participating in a programme for children in Shizuoka prefecture due to “safety concerns”.

An official speaking on condition of anonymity added that the safety of boys was just as important, though they had not been banned. Make of that what you will.

The decision made headlines in Japan [on] Thursday, and comes as the sumo association faces allegations of sexism,” reported AFP.

The rings where sumo is practised, known as the dohyo, are seen as sacred spaces in the native Shinto faith. Women, who are considered ritually unclean, are barred from stepping into them.”

So much so that recently, when a male mayor collapsed in a sumo ring in Kyoto prefecture while giving a speech, women who rushed to perform CPR on him were ordered to leave the ring. One was a trained nurse. Perhaps the patient would have had some thoughts on this, had he been in a state to voice them.

The girls who were banned from the children’s programme in Shizuoka prefecture include several sumo club members with training experience. According to the Japan Times, Tomohiro Nakajima, 43, who is involved with the Yaizu sumo club, called it “regrettable” that the girls were banned, since boys and girls had been training together for some time.

Sumo is, of course, not the only sport with question marks around female participation. Here’s a nugget for you: according to the event website, the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (CG2018) would be the first in history of a major multi-sports Games event to have an equal number of men and women’s medal events.

Seven new women’s events and categories were added to the programme, putting them on par with men,” the organisers wrote.

Traditionally, women were not allowed to participate in the Commonwealth Games. They were exclusively for men.”

Since 1930, however, after the British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, women’s impact on the Games grew stronger. On International Women’s Day, the Commonwealth Games celebrated athletes such as Dorothy Roche, who at 62 became Australia’s oldest gold medallist. But the fact remains: it took the best part of a century to really catch up.

In February 2018, the figures were released for how many female athletes were competing in the Winter Olympics. Gradually, since the first Games in 1924 – which featured just 11 women out of 258 athletes in total, and all of them figure skaters – the numbers increased to 43%. Again, it only took 94 years.

Women’s sport sometimes seems to run along a parallel timeline, one that lags behind the rest of life,” wrote columnist Andy Bull in the Guardian in 2017.

Bull was referring to the fact that it was 2012 before women were able to compete in every event at the Olympics, and 2014 before they could play professional cricket in England. Later still was women’s acceptance to professional rugby (2016) in the form of official rankings by World Rugby.

In the UK, women’s sport still gets just 7% of all sports coverage. Quartz, meanwhile, reports that there is less coverage of women’s sport now than there was in 1989. In a US study by Michael A. Messner, Michela Musto and Cheryl Cooky, data collected over nearly two decades revealed that by 2014, only 3.2% of network television coverage was given to women’s sports.

In South Africa, legislation is progressive, but the numbers also lag. Michelle Sikes and Nana Adom argue in The Conversation that South Africa has “adopted a number of declarations and passed laws to remedy the situation. For example, South Africa was one of the first countries to adopt the Brighton Declaration on Women and Sport passed nearly 23 years ago to increase women’s participation in sport.”

However, Sikes and Adom add:

Fast forward to 2017 and there’s little to show for all this activity. Our attempts to garner more information about women and sport in South Africa and the country’s national strategy have yielded few results. Data on the number of women and girls participating in sport are not readily available, despite the requirement that all sport bodies submit membership statistics to the department of sport. Nor has the department set out detailed plans on how it intends to ensure equal opportunity in sport for women.”

According to data on the Sascoc website, they say, of the 30 Olympic athletes receiving support, fewer than a third are women. Of the 20 coaches who work with these athletes, three are women.

Which brings us back to recent headlines, which represent a range of locations and cultures. April 2018: Vox reports that cheerleaders have to follow a string of “bizarre, sexist rules”, according to a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

Fraternisation” with players is forbidden, but heavily weighted in the male players’ favour; social media accounts and social interactions of the cheerleaders are tightly monitored.

March 2018: The hijab is first banned, and then the ban is overturned, for sports participation in a London school.

March 2018: Tonga education ministry is condemned after girls are banned from participating in rugby or boxing at school.

January 2018: “Walk-on girls” (models) are banned from participating in darts; Formula One announces intention to follow suit by banning “grid girls”.

January 2018: The Women’s Sport Trust calls for walk-on girls, grid girls and ring girls to be banned in all sports. The debate is heated: some argue banning the women will result in job losses; others argue having them there at all is demeaning.

July 2017: Human Rights Watch reports that Saudi Arabia has finally reversed its long-standing ban on sport for girls and women in public schools.

Given the strangeness of all this, I often wonder: how will it be perceived in a hundred years’ time? I don’t only mean sport, either. In the same way that we shudder at corsets or foot binding, will our grandchildren one day tell gruesome anecdotes about how their grandmothers had to teeter around on strange things called stilettos, all in the name of beauty? Will our descendants gawp at how their grandparents had invasive surgeries to change the shape of their noses or ears or breasts?

And when it comes to sport, in the same way that we now gawp at how women had to wear long dresses while playing tennis or ride side-saddle, will our children tell their children how As recently as post-2000, there were still sports that banned women’s participation? Or how there was less funding, support or coverage for female athletes?

How will we explain all this one day? And how will we explain that it was happening in 2018? Odd news, indeed. DM

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