Rise of mixed-sex athletics will be good for sport
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Rise of mixed-sex athletics will be good for sport

Diane and Phil Schiavo play pickleball against Lori Vickery and Frank Laratonda during the 2023 Ballpark Series in July in Boston, Massachusetts, US. REUTERS
Diane and Phil Schiavo play pickleball against Lori Vickery and Frank Laratonda during the 2023 Ballpark Series in July in Boston, Massachusetts, US. REUTERS

The assumption that an athlete's birth sex dictates his or her performance level has made transgender participation in sports a lightning rod -- but the issue is moot in a growing number of coed sports, from competitive sailing to pickleball to esports. And in the future, athletics are likely to evolve so that mixed-gender competition becomes much more common. That will lead to a rise in sports that are just as riveting, but more inclusive.

This is not to deny that men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women, and so have an advantage in sports that are most popular today -- football, baseball, basketball and the like. Even super-athlete Serena Williams has said she doesn't want to compete against men in tennis.

But men and women already compete together each other in other sports -- and in my view, these are the best, most interesting sports. They are contests not so much of size and strength but of tactics, decisiveness, smart risk-taking, perseverance, courage and mental and emotional flexibility. These include car racing, shooting, archery, equestrian events, free diving, and some of the most extreme contests -- bike races of over 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometres), ultramarathons that last for more than 100 miles, and what may be the longest distance race of all: round-the-world solo sailing.

I come to this topic with a bias and some inside experience. I routinely compete against men in shorter-distance sailboat racing. I do it every week, even throughout the New England winter. I'll keep it up till I'm too decrepit to get into the boat. In sailing, separate men's and women's competitions exist, but the most challenging events are open to all genders. Women have won.

Cole Brauer is one of them. She recently won the One-Two Race, which goes from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda single-handed and back to Newport double-handed. In a fleet of 25 boats, she won first place, with a female co-skipper on the return.

I went to meet the 29-year-old at the shipyard in Newport, where she's preparing a 40-foot (12-metre) yacht called a Class40 to race nonstop around the world -- alone. The race, called the Global Solo Challenge, isn't just an adventure in survival but a high-stakes competition against 25 other sailors.

The first thing I noticed about her was her size: She's 158 centimetres and weighs just 45 kilogrammes. Being a shorter, smaller person is a disadvantage in many sports, but isn't a factor in long distance sailing -- and being very tall has even been considered a disadvantage for runners in marathons and ultramarathons.

Ms Brauer started sailing in college at the University of Hawaii, crewing on a two-person boat. Since she had no previous racing experience, she got paired with a skipper nobody else wanted to sail with. His nickname was The Ogre. Crewing means not just controlling sails but making tactical decisions, but The Ogre had a tendency to take over. She insisted that he teach her to do her part, and then stay out of the way. Her forceful approach paid off for both of them -- they got into a national-level competition. She then learned to skipper, and after graduation pursued sailing as a career.

She learned she could make money by transporting yachts to and from ocean races. And she learned she was happiest when she was on deck alone. She lived in a van so she could be where the boats were. Yet she was constantly turned down for jobs -- people thought she was too small to control a big boat. Boats are often designed to be sailed by bigger, stronger people, but it doesn't have to be that way.

The Global Solo Challenge is the ultimate ultramarathon. All the sailors will have to be focused on eating enough, drinking enough fluid, and getting enough sleep -- something Ms Brauer said you have to do in two-hour stretches even when the wind and waves become violent. A medical team has taught her how to insert an IV needle in case she gets severely dehydrated.

There are several different solo races that go around the world, and more women are competing all the time. While the Solo Challenge allows communication with a team, the Golden Globe race, first run in 1968, requires that sailors go solo around the world with no communication or modern navigation technology. The 2022 winner of this extreme challenge was a woman, South African Kirsten Neuschäfer.

Yes, many currently popular sports favour strength and size. But there's much to learn by giving more attention to the sports that don't. Sports can be re-imagined and re-engineered to be more inclusive and more accessible -- not only based on sex and gender, but to people who don't have time to train for hours every day.

In the future, more people could enjoy doing sports as well as watching them on television. Just look at the meteoric rise of pickleball, another sport in which men and women commonly compete together, or the popularity of esports, which aren't sex-segregated.

Future decades will see the invention of new sports -- and perhaps some will be designed so that so that people of different genders and body types can compete. In such sports there would be no justification for restrictions on transgender athletes. Everyone would be competing as a human.

There are so many reasons people will always love watching and playing sports. Sports show us how to recognise and take advantage of good luck without getting complacent, and how to overcome bad luck without getting angry. They teach us how to recover from setbacks and mistakes, and to push through exhaustion and discouragement.

The best athletes muster just the right amount of aggression and just the right level of confidence and decisiveness. Sports are a metaphor for life. And as our attitudes about sex and gender change, so sports will change for the better. Bloomberg

F.D. Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She is host of the "Follow the Science" podcast.

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