men, masculinities and gender politics

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Inside track

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One of Australia's top athletes gives the inside gossip on being an all-male superhero.

I OPENED my diary a few days ago, just for something to do. I had forgotten what I was like back then, and how I came to be me. Considering the things we have to go through sometimes, I reckon I'm doing a good job. I'm also glad I can share part of my life with other men and let them know a little of what it's like to be me. I don't know what changes are in store in the next few years, but this is how I got as far as I have.

For a long time I was confused about what had happened to me. As a boy I was bombarded with images of the greatness of sport, competitiveness, bodies and achievement. But whatever it was that I got from sport as a teenager, I enjoyed it and I liked myself when I did it. I was popular and I felt needed.

I can't remember being naturally competitive, nor ever wanting to win at any cost. I just enjoyed working hard, and I did well mostly because of that. Several years later I made it to the big time and began playing for Australia. After a few years at that elite level I began to feel that sport became less fulfilling for me the more I achieved, and that my long-time dream to be the best was becoming a nightmare.

It happened very slowly. It crept in. It seduced me completely. At the time I loved it totally. Sport was it. But somehow, after representing Australia for three years, after establishing myself as the best there was in my sport in Australia, after becoming the one everyone else was compared to, I gave up. Bitter. Disappointed. Unfulfilled. Lost.

The years following my decision to stop playing competitive sport have proved to be very important. I now realise that the things that drove me to compete and made me dream of being the best were self-destructive. In sport there are many promises but rarely any rewards. Our value as humans was determined only by the colour of the medal hanging around our necks.

The way I lived, particularly in mixing with other sportspeople, sometimes in village-style accommodation at multisports events or at live-in training camps, provided contradictions between what I wanted from sport (feeling good about myself and my work) and what I got (being objectified as an unpaid worker in sport, constantly having to prove my worth, never satisfied with winning or with my own performance).

Elite sport, I was saddened to find, secretly captures and encourages everything I find ugly in society. The sport hype reduces us, men and women alike, to believing we are purely bodies: designed to throw far, jump high, play hard, and perform perfectly. The truth is we are each dispensable, constantly judged on our performance and on the size of our muscles. And we judge each other by the same criteria.

In many ways this seemed an inevitable way of being: I often lived with, ate with, partied with and trained with more than a hundred immaculately trained bodies. All conversation was about sport and training, and we would often bitch about the wussy sports - the ones that weren't as tough as ours. Sport was our life, and we were the best there was in sport. We wholeheartedly believed we were doing the most important thing in the world. Our lack of employment helped us believe in our own martyrdom.

There was a hierarchy between sports and within sports, and particularly between men and women. We were very good at playing our roles. Sex was always central in defining our masculinity. Our attitude was that we were there to win and that the female athletes were there for our recreation. If you were a man and didn't play our sport then you were either a wanker (ie you couldn't get a woman) or gay. Women were very good at reinforcing all this. They loved to have sex with us, because we were "the best there is", and their very presence reinforced our greatness. In our world sex was an obligation rather than an option.

In our world fucking (always heterosexual) and flirting were the dominant criteria by which we judged each other. Choose not to participate and you were labelled "gay". It didn't really matter to other people how your training was going. What seemed to matter most was what you did between training sessions. Explicit stories, distorted reputations and bragging all kept this alive and important. What was real in this surreal world was very difficult to know.

At training the jokes and comments were part of the ritual of warming up. If you didn't play well, it was often put down to a lack of sex. If you continued to play poorly then the next layer of criticism would come in the form of "You're playing like a girl!" or "Get stuck into it, you poofter". Both types of comment were intended as derogatory. The implication was the same. I was "less than a man" because I was having trouble with my life and my sport. I tried harder, though, and got very good at coping by blocking out the things that annoyed me about my training-mates' sexism and the gender-politics of my sport. My performance improved, even if I was still deeply unhappy. I again made the Australian team.

The next year two things contributed to what became my turning point. One of my close friends was what we would now call date-raped. Apparently she had "asked for it". Her performance in sport declined, and on that basis her funding contracts were withdrawn. At the same time I felt that the sexist comments in my sport were becoming more cutting and more frequent. For the first time I felt each comment as if it was directed at me.

It was obvious that my feeling good about myself had become linked by the elite sport system to having my performances compared with those of others. Performing well and winning had become confused with dominating and oppressing. I feared that I would be dumped just as I had seen others exploited and then dumped. My friend was dumped rather than counselled. Her demise happened in the first place because of the rights and obligations given to men as elite-sport workers. Sport, like wider society, doesn't explicitly condone such an attitude, but provides all the incentives and punishments for it to occur. We provided recreation for wider society, but in doing so we lived out in magnified detail the problems and warts of that society.

Such caricatures of society can be found in business, education and other workplaces. In many ways sport is a thousand times worse because of the emphasis on the physical. Competition was where many were defeated so that only one could win. There was the abundance of the body beautiful, the currency of success. This must be the ultimate in socially acceptable abuse and objectification. Our toil and our pain are used as an example for others to emulate. Our misery is never recorded.

Sport used to be my way out. For a time it provided the most despairing and personally confronting period in my life. Upon reflection it has helped me be aware of the exploitative nature of our patriarchal society. My experiences have not turned me away from sport. They have turned me into a very good coach. In challenging my values I have found alternative ways of training for "success" without having to destroy others, and I now enjoy sport more than ever. The hard lessons were important for me, but I often remember my friend recounting her story of forced sex, and my wishing that none of this - sport, success, rape and tears - had happened to either of us.

 

 

Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA © Copyright 1995