A love of sports came to my seven-year-old son with no effort. It came from his friends, from the cereal box, from Saturday nights with Don and Ron. While brushing his teeth, he says mournfully and foamy-mouthed, apropos of nothing, "Poor Luongo."
My six-year-old daughter knows Luongo, too.
But if I ask her to name a woman sports star, she struggles. "The one who has my name?" she posits.
Mia Hamm, though, retired before she was born, and I couldn't come up with a single female soccer player from the Women's World Cup we watched this summer.
In short, my daughter encounters few images of and hears fewer conversations about girls and women participating in the physical life I want for her: strong, fit, confident, a good winner or loser. Then the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) announced that it's considering requiring female boxers to wear skirts.
Women's boxing will be an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. Being asked to wear miniskirts is a little like saying, "Come to the party, but use the back entrance – and dress like it's Slutoween."
Not surprisingly, the prospective rule isn't sitting well with many female boxers. Ireland's three-time world champion, Katie Taylor, told the BBC, "I don't even wear miniskirts on a night out, so I definitely won't be wearing miniskirts in the ring."
AIBA president Ching-Kuo Wu mounted his defence thusly: "People say, 'We can't tell the difference between the men and the women,' especially on TV, since they're in the same uniforms and are wearing headgear."
But what's wrong with women boxers resembling men? Having gained equal status in the sport at last, women are now being pushed to elide that equality and differentiate themselves; they're not boxers, but lady boxers.
Earlier this year, the Badminton World Federation proposed skirts or dresses as regulation uniforms for women players. While the idea was roundly condemned, the BWF's deputy president, Paisan Rangsikitpho, stood behind it: "We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular. Interest is declining. Some women compete in oversize shorts and long pants and appear ... almost like men."
Somehow, the success story of women athletes reaching the same levels of competition as men has been recast as a horror film about a shape-shifting army of mannish jocks who must be stopped: Almost…like… MEN! NOOOO! Rangsikitpho couched this anxiety in the old rationale that sexing up women's sports will get people to tune in. But the truth is, if you want to watch women's sports on TV, outside of international meets and the Olympics, it's not easy. A report out of the University of California at Santa Cruz discovered that the amount of time devoted to women's sports on certain newscasts dropped from 5 per cent in 1989 to 1.6 per cent in 2009.
To see women athletes, you have to pick up magazines such as Maxim. And just think, little girls: If you achieve international success in tennis or soccer, you too might land a photo shoot involving milk being sprayed into your open mouth! Citius, Altius, Fortius! My daughter's school has an excellent girls' football team, but if those young players want to watch females over 12 playing football, the most visible team in our city is the Toronto Triumph of the U.S. Lingerie Football League, wherein women in underwear tackle for titillation and profit. But last month, the Toronto franchise lost 20 players, many complaining of dangerously ineffective equipment and injuries.
One American player talked about turf burns and lack of insurance. To top it off, league founder Mitch Mortaza has reportedly stopped paying these women a salary (instead, players fork over a $45 participation fee for the honour), all the while crowing to the media about the game's growing popularity.
Yet it turns out that sex isn't necessarily smart sports marketing. Mary Jo Kane, a professor at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study in which male and female subjects were shown various images of women athletes – some of them at moments of great athletic triumph, some of them lounging and some in supine soft-porn positions. The ones that made the subjects most want to watch sports were the ones highlighting athletic prowess. The sexy images were deemed "hot" by some young male participants but provoked no interest in women's sports.
Wrote Kane in The Nation, "Sex sells sex, not women's sports."
I admit that I'm hoping my daughter gets into sports in part so she'll feel as though her body is about something more than beauty. But how to explain to a young girl that even if she reaches the apex of female athleticism, her reward will be the kind of sex-first packaging that we were trying to escape?