Fit to Compete?

MEGAN HUGHES questions whether we judge female athletes more on the way they look rather than on their ability on the field.

Cambridge women's football Team CUWAFC female athletes Jessica Ennis Jessica Ennis bum sexism tab comments The Other Place Varsity

Lent Term sees the emergence of fervent Cambridge loyalty revived, as many of the University’s sports teams clash against their mortal enemies, their opponents from The Other Place, in a series of Varsity matches.

As this partisan fever sweeps the faculties, so students find themselves exposed to increased coverage of sporting endeavours and achievements. For those who represent the University in their sport of choice, this is is a refreshing and encouraging phenomenon, as are the reports of success for men and women alike which flood our student newspapers.

It seems, however, that such a phenomenon also reveals a darker side of student culture. Last week, I wrote a report on the Cambridge Women’s Football Team’s emphatic victory over their Oxford counterparts in the League, an achievement which both exceeded expectations and sent out a strong message ahead of their Varsity game. Whilst I was encouraged by congratulations from those friends who tendentially remain wholly unconnected from the world of football, I was disheartened to see that the first comment on the article was one which swept aside the players’ success, and instead focused upon the appearance of one girl.

The comment, since removed, suggested that the offending party had taken a particularly vulgar liking to one footballer shown in the picture, though not in so many words. Admittedly, it was crude, base, and demonstrated a complete absence of wit on the part of the commenter, yet that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was made. It angered me that some oafish troll had taken it upon themselves to crack a joke, at the expense of a team who had grafted hard to pummel Oxford. It might have been coarse and unintelligent, but ultimately the fact that the comment ostensibly had the power to undermine such a brilliant victory left a sour taste in my mouth.

CUWAFC, exhausted after their Varsity win on Saturday

It’s not simply one off-hand comment, either. On its own, such a remark wouldn’t be particularly damaging, but it reflects the harmful culture which seems to characterise the modern attitude to sport in this country. As athletes gain public acclaim, so they begin to blur the lines between celebrated sportsperson and celebrity. It is perhaps this trend within popular culture, of regarding successful athletes as superheroic, and of transferring them from the realm of sport to that of celebrity culture, which has engendered an increasingly common phenomenon: the judgement of athletes based upon the aesthetic, rather than sporting prowess.

The most distinct manifestation of such a trend came to the fore during the Olympics last summer. Jessica Ennis was not only an Olympic gold medallist in the heptathlon, but ran the 110m hurdles in a time which would have seen her clinch gold four years earlier in Beijing, a seismic achievement. Yet whilst the public bowed down to her triumphs on the track and field, she drew another crowd of admirers. It was this contingent which created the Facebook page ‘Jessica Ennis Bum’, now boasting an astonishing 125,000 likes and counting. This born in mind, it seems apt that we pose the question of whether all public recognition is a positive force, particularly in the case of physical appearance.

Jessica Ennis winning the 800m in the London Olympics

It would be foolish to argue that we shouldn’t judge others based upon physical appearance; it’s a fundamental and instinctive characteristic of human nature. More than this, I can already imagine people pointing out that, surely, any appreciation of somebody’s beauty can’t be a negative concept. Perhaps it can’t, in itself. Yet we live in a writhing, organic society whose members are all cyberly inter-connected, and neither remarks nor events can be viewed in isolation. If it becomes acceptable, even conventional, to scrutinise attractive athletes on the grounds of their aesthetic, it will inevitably become the norm to criticise those who are less conventionally good-looking on those very same grounds.

Athletes often sacrifice a lot to reach the top of that game, not solely in terms of commitment, but often in terms of appearance. Whether it be a Cambridge Rugby Blue with cauliflower ears or a female weight-lifter competing at world-level, modern athletes commonly develop corporeal and facial features which distinguish them from the established ‘ideal’ aesthetic of beauty. What gives us the right to condemn them for such physical differences? Pretty much nothing, in my book. Even in those instances where sportspeople are admired for their looks, an ostensibly positive assessment, such a judgement is symptomatic of the noxious streak in contemporary British sporting culture.

I know this argument isn’t going to be particularly popular, it’s going against the grain, but then I wouldn’t be writing it if it weren’t. I also know that there are many Cambridge students who don’t adhere to the cultural trend that I’ve discussed, who most probably make up the majority. It just seemed a shame that a place like Cambridge could harbour such injurious attitudes; in an ideal world, whenever we read about a Blues victory, we’d be more likely to applaud their achievement on the pitch than their appearance off it.