How will the Olympics inspire girls?

Picture credit: photostock and

The London Olympics are upon us and they are shaping up to be quite extraordinary from the standpoint of advancing women’s athletics.  For instance this will be the first Olympic Games in which every Olympic nation is represented by a female competitor; it’s also the first time that women will compete in every Olympic sport.

As a cultural sociologist and writer who focuses on childhood and athletics among other topics, I believe in the power of sport to effect social change.  I also know that sports are a way to shape the next generation by teaching children lessons about competition and life.  But those lessons are often shaped by gender and class.

In my academic work I find that many parents, especially those from the upper-middle class, realize how important it is for girls to play competitive sports. Why? Parents perceive that there are numerous long-term benefits in terms of adult professional achievement.

What might these benefits be? I’ll highlight three here, but soon you will be able to read a whole chapter on this topic in my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. (Note: As part of this research I interviewed parents from 95 families with primary school-age kids involved in chess, dance, and soccer. I was especially interested in understanding how parents of girls chose between the two physical activities [dance and soccer] for their daughters.)

1) Learning how to be part of a team– The team element of competitive youth sports was especially important to many parents I met.  Here’s an illustrative quote from one Ivy-League educated soccer (American football) mom:

We have no illusions that our children are going to be great athletes. But the team element (is important). I worked for Morgan Stanley for 10 years, and I interviewed applicants, and that ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it’s a skill that comes into play much later. It’s not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination.

2) Learning how to strive to win, be the best, and be aggressive- This same mother went on to explain why she thought ice hockey was such a good choice for her daughter. Her daughter actually played two travel sports– soccer and ice hockey.  Her comments also highlight what additional skills children acquire when they make the jump from recreational participation in team sports to competitive youth sports where the emphasis on winning and being aggressive becomes amplified.

When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter’s playing, and I’m just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness.

3) Learning to use sports to connect across social boundaries (like sex and class)– You may notice that this mother is a professional who is highly credentialed.  This was true of many of the soccer parents  that I interviewed.  We can think of them as part of the American upper-middle class.  Sports are quite important in American upper-middle class culture because athletics celebrate and promote many of the values that are valued in professional work environments. In the past these values (like learning to win, for example) applied more to men than women.  But today parents expect the same sort of achievement from their sons and daughters, and see sports as a way to teach this lesson to their daughters.  They seem to be on the right track. Recent economic research has found that participation in sports while in secondary school increases the likelihood that a girl attends university, enters the labor market, and enters previously male-dominated occupations. 

These classed lessons in femininity are an unexplored way in which gender and class reproduction occurs, beginning in childhood.  While we root for athletes from our home nations, and those whose stories resonate with us, during this Summer Olympics it’s important to understand the various social forces that shape these athletes’ past and future achievements, and those who they inspire.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a writer and Harvard sociologist, Gates Scholar 2002, and former co-chair of the Gates Alumni Association.  For more on her work  please see


Boxing in different corners

Boxing fans who gathered at Madison Square Garden on 16th June, 1983, were mightily surprised by the outcome of the fight they had just watched. Billy Collins Jr., on whose victory all the wise money was bet, was beaten into a bloody pulp by the scrawny-looking Luis Resto. When, after round ten, referees declared the latter to be the winner, Billy Collin’s face was so swollen he couldn’t even open his eyes.

Many people suspected that Luis Resto played dirty, but there was no proof. The truth only surfaced in 2007, when the guilt-ridden boxer admitted to Collins’ wife (Billy Collins himself died prematurely in 1984) that he fought in illegally enhanced boxing gloves. The obligatory inner padding, which prevented superficial facial injuries, was removed, and bandages wrapped around Resto’s hands were dipped in wet gypsum. As a result, Resto’s punches were much more powerful and did more damage. Boxing fans around the world were outraged, and 16th June 1983 is widely believed to be the worst day in the sport’s history.

Ancient Greeks, however, are unlikely to have been moved by this story. I’m sure they’d condemn cheating – they always insisted that sportsmen have to play by the rules – but they’d be baffled by the idea of using gloves designed to limit the power of a blow and the resulting injuries.

Ancient Greeks, whom we usually associate with track-and-fields sports, such as the discus throw or long jump, were also avid fans of martial arts. They practiced wrestling, boxing and pankration, which was a combination of the two and wasn’t much different from today’s MMA fights. Opponents went into the ring naked (wrestling), or with their hands wrapped in leather straps (boxing and pankration). However, these leather straps were not intended to limit the facial injuries caused to the opponent, but only to protect the boxer’s hands. What’s more, being hit with a leather-wrapped punch was even more painful than a normal blow, since it was more likely to cut the opponent’s skin. As if this wasn’t enough, at some point Greeks added an extra thick and toughened leather strap to their proto-gloves – the sole role of which was to cause more damage.

Romans, who are known to have enjoyed bloody sports, preferred gladiatorial fights to martial arts. Still, boxing was widely practiced in the Empire. However, its inhabitants introduced one crucial innovation. It seems that they thought simple leather straps were for wimps, so they introduced even meaner “gloves”. Roman boxers used studded leather straps or placed bits of metal in between the wrappings. It’s hardly surprising then that Virgil describes boxers’ hands as splattered with blood and bits of brain – boxing matches fought with such accessories were bound to end tragically from time to time – it was as if the opponents were fighting in knuckle-dusters. Luis Resto would have felt right at home – apart from the fact that his opponents could strike him back fair and square, that is.

Even if a boxer managed to leave the fighting ring under his own steam, he’d need a long while to get back in shape. The outcome of ancient boxing matches is well illustrated by the unique bronze statue, known as the Terme  or Quirinal Boxer. A photo of the whole sculpture can be accessed here; below is a close-up of the face:

Source: Wikimedia

Even though this statue comes from the Hellenistic period – so well before Romans introduced the knuckle duster-like gloves – the boxer’s face is badly battered. His cheeks, eyebrows and the forehead are covered in cuts; some of his teeth are missing, and his ears are swollen and have a cauliflower-like look. The model for the Terme Boxer is also likely to have suffered from many internal injuries, such as micro injuries to the brain, but this obviously cannot be seen on this statue. Interestingly, the statue also lacks eyes – but this at least is not due to brutal duelling; ancient bronze sculptures had eyes separately crafted out of precious materials which were often stolen.

Why am I writing about all this? Not because I’m a boxing fan; to be perfectly honest, I have always found the sport rather boring. Still, I think that ancient boxing is a great example with which to illustrate the complexity of our relationship with the past. On the one hand, it would appear that we’re very similar to ancient Greeks and Romans; boxing seems to be as popular today as it was two thousand years ago. One could argue that people have changed very little since the days of Plato and Caesar, despite all our technological and social progress. However, taking a closer look at ancient and modern boxing reveals crucial differences. Whereas modern fans of the discipline were revolted by boxing gloves designed to leave the opponent’s face in tatters, ancients took them for granted and presumably thought they made the spectacle more fun to watch. This shows that the similarities between us and the ancients, which are so frequently emphasised, are often no more than superficial.

Jakub Szamalek [2009] is doing a PhD in Classics focusing on the material remains of Greek settlements in the Black Sea area. He is particularly interested in the nature of the relations between the Greeks and the indigenous peoples inhabiting this region.

The final reckoning: how much should end of life care cost?

The big innovation in the 19th and 20th century was the acknowledgement that health is a systemic issue. If people do not seek medical advice for small problems due to economic reasons, these small problems can become big problems and cause further poverty. This realisation led, for example, to the establishment of the NHS in 1948.

Nowadays we are facing the sustainability challenge: will we be able to keep affording the systems set up as a result? One problem is the ageing populations of many developed nations – it is estimated that in the US on average between 25% and 56% of healthcare spending occurs in the final 12 months of life. A second problem is, ironically, continuing progress in the medical sciences which allows us to treat more diseases and prolong lives. But the associated costs are spiralling out of control. Also, scientific progress creates illusions regarding what it possible and feasible. Combined with the lack of a culture that discusses death as a part of life many doctors find themselves under pressure to do whatever is possible, regardless of quality of life – or costs.

The latter point – placing a monetary value on life – might sit very uncomfortably with some readers. However, when we look at health as a systemic issue the question of money is bound to arise in one form or another. Every dollar or pound can only be spent once. A cancer treatment that prolongs life for a couple of months (at often a pretty terrible quality of life) can cost £40,000, which could also pay the annual salary of a palliative nurse. In the United Kingdom the discussion is open. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) makes decisions about which treatments are covered by the National Health Service (NHS) based on the calculation of quality-adjusted life years. But systems which do not have this transparency, such as the fragmented German system of different public and private payers and various associations representing healthcare providers, also have to make decisions regarding which treatments are considered effective and value for money in order to contain costs and kept health insurance affordable.

Another issue which affects the sustainability of our healthcare systems is the human side. Organisational structures are filled by people, both staff and patients. As the people in them change structures have to adapt and vice versa. A system in which structures and people are out of synch will not work in the long run. A popular contemporary line of argument is that because healthcare is fundamentally an interaction between people, it is complex and non deterministic. Other arguments for this complexity model are based on the enormous variety of issues faced by healthcare providers, although this is strictly speaking not a characteristic of complexity but rather indicates a complicated problem. Semantics aside, the focus on complexity are as one-sided as the earlier models of rational technocratic top-down blueprints which the complexity model seeks to supersede. It is not a question of one or the other, but rather ‘horses for courses’.

A climbing rose is a good simile for how organisational success depends on interactions between staff and structures. A climbing rose (staff) requires a scaffold (structures) to reach its full potential. The shape of the scaffold will have a key influence on the shape of the final rose bush, but it is not possible to completely determine the shape of the bush from the shape of the scaffold and sometimes it becomes necessary to change the shape of the scaffold. On the other hand, the best scaffold in the world is worthless without the right, good, healthy plants.

I think the challenges we face are so big that a more open discussion regarding end of life care will be inevitable. On the other hand, a new direction in the policy debate that seeks to reconcile technocratic approaches to structures with insights about the complexity of human interaction should help to ensure a system that can adapt to changing environments and new challenges.

*Eva-Maria Hempe [2007] completed a PhD in Engineering, focusing on healthcare services and more specifically the design of services for people with learning or intellectual disabilities. She is now working as a management consultant with a particular interest in healthcare. Picture credit: Bill Longshaw and

Gender, development and structural change

Poverty is by no means a new issue – but the ways in which it is tackled by international, state and non-governmental actors are constantly evolving. Especially since the 1970s, women have been recognised as playing an important role in development. On a global scale, gender equality and female empowerment are recognised as pathways to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Women feature as the primary actors in many poverty alleviation initiatives and are usually portrayed as responsible, caring, and more likely to invest in household well being than their male counterparts. Microfinance – or the provision of credit to poor women for the purposes of entrepreneurial activity – is perhaps the most visible and well-known example of this kind of development thinking and practice.

Women are targeted in other major development programmes as well. One of the fastest growing initiatives to address poverty is the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT). CCTs are based on notions of investment and responsibility. Small monthly cash payments, usually around US$35, are given explicitly to poor mothers, who then must meet certain conditions like ensuring their kids have a high rate of school attendance and regular health checks. Mothers are often required to participate in sexual health, nutrition and hygiene classes, as well as ‘voluntary’ community cleanups. A lot of this is work based on providing care. Failure to meet the conditions results in expulsion from the programme, as also happens if household income goes above the threshold. Women are specifically targeted in CCTs, and men excluded (similarly to most microfinance initiatives).

CCTs are applauded by the World Bank, governments and policy experts across the globe as an economical and efficient way to improve child welfare. Started in the mid-nineties in Brazil and Mexico, whose programmes cover 12.9 million and 5.8 million families respectively, CCTs are currently in 17 of 20 Latin American countries, with regional ‘experts’ travelling to offer consulting services for start-up CCTs in Africa, Southeast Asia and even New York.

It is important, however, not to celebrate and reproduce gendered programmes like CCTs uncritically. By ‘gendered’ I refer to the way in which such programmes are structured upon the differences between and among women and men, and the different assumptions we have of what men and women do and are like. CCTs, like microfinance, reflect ideas about poor men and women and what they do – for example, men spend money on themselves and in bars, while women can be relied upon to spend money and time on their children. While statistically these stereotypes may hold some truth, a critical gender analysis probes deeper, asking why men and women allocate resources differently.

In the case of CCTs, looking at gendered impacts involves investigating what happens when men are excluded from a development programme based on responsibility for children’s welfare. It prompts questions about impacts on women’s own well being and opportunities to be conceived of as individuals with rights and responsibilities outside of their roles as mothers. This kind of critical questioning highlights– and works to dismantle – structures and patterns of gender inequality that are harmful and easily reproduced. What are the structures in place that have 12.9 million families in Brazil unable to keep their kids well fed and in school? What factors contribute to unequal patterns of male and female likelihood to invest money and time in familial well being? Once identified, we can ask: How might we change these?

The widespread implementation of CCT programmes attests to the recognition that poverty can be alleviated through providing care and that women play crucial roles in the development of healthy families and communities. However, programmes that promise better lives for children without working to change harmful patterns of gender (and other) inequality are not likely to bring about meaningful change for the future. Researchers, proponents and critics of poverty alleviation initiatives need to ask: What are the broader impacts of designing development initiatives according to gendered assumptions and stereotypes? What opportunities are constrained or missed for creating sustainable initiatives that impact children, men, and women – equally?

 *Tara Cookson is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and is doing a PhD in Geography. She is critically exploring the effects of the more recent post-neoliberal policy shifts on women’s lives as carers within the Latin American region, focusing specifically on those policies that seek to ’empower’ women and alleviate poverty. Photo credit: Tom Shanklin and Creative Commons.