Debate: Is it time sports teams were mixed

No – Alice Richardson

I am a feminist. I went to an all-girls school and was raised by a mother who attended that same school a generation earlier. That school was the one Emmeline Pankhurst chose to send her two daughters to. I believe in the power of women from all walks of life and particularly the power of women in sport.

I have personally competed for both the Oxford University Women’s Waterpolo club and Oxford University Athletics club, have rowed for my college’s women’s second’s boat and I recognise that I am very lucky to have been given such opportunities to make the most of. I care deeply about women’s sport and the inequality that still exists both in media coverage and in institutional funding between men-only and women-only sport.

Overall difference are such that it wouldn’t be fair

However, having the level of experience in sport that I have and having witnessed and compared the differences between cis-women and cis-men at a relatively high levels, I cannot legitimately endorse the principle of mixed teams at an elite level across all sports indiscriminately. I agree with the idea in principle, but its enactment in reality would be far more complex and difficult to manage, at least in certain sports.

For example, in sports that rely on a great deal of physicality, such as waterpolo, those on the men’s team are more likely to be able to throw the ball harder, swim faster and remain able to endure higher levels of intensity in training for longer than those on the women’s team. I have personally seen this in my own training from week to week and, despite the fact that the women’s team are in the pool training hard more often and more regularly than the men’s team, the cis-men seem to consistently retain an averagely higher level of natural strength and power than we do. Likewise, on the track, of the 200m runners I have seen at training, the cis-men are likely to run decisively faster than their cis-female counterparts and in rowing, our college’s men’s first boat can cover the Isis’ 2km course markedly faster than our college’s women’s first boat.

Mixed teams in these kinds of sports are not feasible

The overall differences (and of course there are always exceptions to this rule) between the physical capabilities of cis-men and those of cis-women is such that it would not be realistically fair to field a team of all cis-women against a team of all cis-men in such physical sports as waterpolo, athletics or rowing, and I can imagine in others such as Rugby or Swimming as well. If the cis-men played at their full capacity, they wouldn’t only beat the cis-women decisively; they would likely injure them too: the last time I played mixed Waterpolo was when I was 15 and I ended up with a bloody nose.

If the logic of how impractical it is to pitch an all-cis-women team against an all-cis-men team in physical sport can be accepted, then following this logic through we can say that fielding mixed teams in these kinds of sports is just not feasible. More often than not, the teams with the fewest number of cis-women in them will be at a significant advantage in these sports and trying to manage how many cis-women are allowed in each team effectively (i.e. limiting the amount of cis-women on each team) would be more likely to increase feeling of inequality between cis-men and cis-women in particularly physical sports than remedy it.

On the other hand, in sports with a more technical emphasis (although all still physical, perhaps less so than the brute force sports like those listed above) such as badminton, hockey, golf, tennis, netball and others where physical differences between individual players are not so obviously influential on the result of a match can be made up for in technical ability, mixed teams are far more feasible and are definitely to be encouraged.


Laura Robson andy murray
Flashback: Mixed doubles pair Laura Robson an Andy Murray could only manage Silver at the 2012 Olympics (Image credit//BBC Sports)

Yes – Ben Sanders

We should abolish male-only sports, and unisex formats should replace them. It’s arbitrary, and therefore unacceptable, to prevent a woman from playing sports alongside men simply because she’s a woman.

Here’s an example to help demonstrate that. Pick a female rugby player and a male rugby player at random – say, Tamara Taylor and James Haskell. Imagine that Taylor is stronger, faster, better at catching and better at throwing than Haskell. In this case, there’s no good reason to exclude Taylor from Haskell’s all-male rugby team. Given that he’s made the cut, then she clearly deserves to as well – because she’s a better player than him.

This makes the point clear. It’s simply wrong to assume that no women would be able to compete effectively in the male arena. In such cases, that only leaves sex itself as the basis for sex-segregation in sport. In the case of male-only sports, this segregation is completely unjustified.

Male-only sports are arbitrary and unacceptable

Don’t get me wrong; banning male-only sports, by legislation, would be too heavy-handed. But we should take it upon ourselves, as citizens, to stop organising them and taking part in them. This includes all sports; team-based, individual, club, international, school, university, and so on.

The usual reply to this is something like; “That’s fine, but how many women will fulfil such conditions? Even if we opened up male rugby teams to women, for example, hardly any would make the grade. Men are generally stronger and faster than women.”

But, even if all of that is true – and that’s debatable anyway – so what? It doesn’t matter how many women would actually take part in unisex sports, because the benefits of making this change would clearly outweigh the costs regardless.

Firstly, there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that sports’ entry-standards would fall as a result of transforming male-only formats into unisex formats. Moreover, it’s senseless to fret that women might easily be injured, or similar, if they attempted to compete alongside men. They’d only get into a team if, just like men, they were sufficiently sturdy to handle the competition. Therefore, there would no sporting cost in abolishing male-only sports and replacing them with unisex formats.

Secondly, the benefits of doing this are clear. By allowing all elite sportspeople to compete alongside all other elite sportspeople – regardless of sex – we’d ensure that they all receive the attention and prestige that their talents deserve. Due to the sad state of the status quo, magnificent non-male sportspeople are undeservedly relegated to anonymity, partly because we don’t allow them to compete alongside the bulk of their fellow elite performers. Moreover, by allowing the best to compete together, the quality of sports would increase.

Furthermore, if we created unisex sporting formats, then we’d finally create a space in mainstream sport that unambiguously includes individuals who don’t identify as either male or female. That would be a truly monumental step forward.

Now, as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve only suggested that we abolish male-only sports. That’s because female-only sports ought to remain – at least temporarily. This asymmetry is crucial.

Why? Because it’d be sensible to expect relatively few women to enter unisex sports, in the short-term. No-one knows how many women, right now, deserve – based on their talents – a place in what are currently male-only sporting arenas. Regardless of this, though, exists the grim fact that our society tends to be conservative and prejudiced. It would take at least several years for many of those who pick teams, for example, to give due consideration to female competitors.

Therefore, it’s near-certain that if female-only sports were also abolished, then women’s presence in sport as a whole would dwindle dramatically for at least the first few years. That would clearly be a disaster. So, whilst male-only sports should be scrapped, female-only sports should remain for the time being.

Some might say that this is unfair; “Why should women get two bites at the cherry, when men would only get one?”

But consider these examples. Athletic Bilbao, a football team that only recruits players with connections to the Basque region, isn’t operating unfairly. Stonewall FC, a team that calls itself a “gay football club” and aims to recruit homosexual players, isn’t doing anything wrong. These teams offer ‘two bites at the cherry’ to certain people, but that’s okay. Sustaining a dedicated sporting platform for a portion of society that struggles for representation amongst mainstream sport, and wishes to assert an identity that our society endorses, is completely acceptable.

Likewise, even if we abolished male-only sports, women would be – for as long as they struggle for sporting representation – entitled to a dedicated sporting platform. That’s one of the roles of female-only sports, and that’s why it wouldn’t be unfair if we let them continue.

There’s no reason whatsoever to wait around over this. Male-only sports are arbitrary and unjust, and we should start getting rid of them today.