Sport is an important factor in many New Zealanders’ lives. Over three-quarters of adults participate in a sporting or recreational activity each week. More than two million people tuned in to watch the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, and top-level netball games are consistently sold out or well attended. In 2013 Sport New Zealand was investing over $130 million in New Zealand sport and recreation annually. High Performance Sport New Zealand invested about $70 million in 2013. However, when it comes to gender, there has not always been a level playing field.
Gender may be understood as assumptions, behaviours and expectations associated with a person’s biological sex. For instance, it might be assumed that boys will be noisy and physical and girls quiet and less physical in their play and activities. These assumptions are socially constructed and are often unquestioned.
Assumptions about gender can constrain people. Assuming a girl will be quiet and non-physical may limit her opportunities to participate in sport. Assuming a boy will be naturally good at sport may intimidate a less physically active boy, and put him off participating at any level.
Sport is rife with gendered assumptions, including assumptions about the sports women and men can and should play. Women were only officially recognised as capable of running marathons in 1967, after American Kathrine Switzer controversially participated in the Boston Marathon, 71 years after the first Olympic marathon. Pole vault has only been included as an Olympic sport for women since 2000, and women’s ski jumping since 2014. There are many reasons for these exclusions, but they stem largely from historical assumptions about women’s ability to participate in endurance and risky sports.
Gender and sport in the 2000s
According to the 2007/8 Active New Zealand Survey, about 80% of women and men participate in sport and recreation once a week. Men took part in more organised sport events than women, and women and men were equally likely to be involved in their club or centre.
At the high-performance level, the number of women and men who compete in the Olympic Games in the 21st century is about even, reflecting the International Olympic Committee’s commitment to advancing gender equality. Funding for these athletes is secured on the basis of their ability to compete and perform at the highest level, not by gender. In elite sport, gender is less of a constraint on participation than it was in earlier decades.