The power of competition

Among the items hanging on my refrigerator door is an article from the Women for Women International newsletter about the fifth anniversary of the Run for Congo Women.

The fundraiser, held in different cities across the U.S., raised money to help programs for women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a country torn apart by war and ethnic conflict. The umbrella organization Women for Women conducts a variety of programs across the world, primarily in countries dealing with brutal realities of war, to help women rebuild their lives.

Then on Facebook this morning came some posts from Teagin Maddox, a coach and author whom I met at a recent weekend workshop, which highlighted some recent news clips of women being victims of acid attacks. The abuse of women stretches from civil and ethnic wars to traditional practices to implications of power. It happens in the Congo and it happens in our suburbs in the United States.

Juxtapose this against my recent viewing of Invictus and serves as another springboard for me to ponder the potentially transformative nature of sport for women.

Because what if, instead of just running to raise money for women in the Congo, we also helped them learn to run and race themselves?

In the movie Invictus, many in Nelson Mandela’s presidential staff were leery of placing importance on rugby and sport. It can be seen as frivolous, as taking time and energy away from other, more important issues at hand.

Certainly when it comes to the treatment of women, sport and fitness often can have a bad name. Play sports too competitively and your sexuality is often questioned or, conversely, you are celebrated only for your looks and sexuality instead of your athletic ability. Tone down the “competitive” aspect of the game and emphasize “fitness” and the goal morphs into attaining a particularly body type deemed desirable and worthy of admiration, success and love.

Granted, those are the stereotypical extremes. Still, they exist.

However, if you anecdotally ask women who have taken up competitive sport as an adult about their experiences, you will find them talking about a shift in their confidence level. You find them talking about being healthy and happy and strong. It’s already well-documented among the research (see this recent report compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation for specifics) that sport, in its many forms, helps young girls develop a strong sense of themselves and gives them the tools needed to leave harmful relationships of all kinds.

Speaking from personal experience, it wasn’t until I started competing in running and triathlon that my sense of emotional and mental strength began to truly develop. My understanding of what I was able to accomplish expanded in all areas of my life. We’ve been using the word “empowerment” so long that it sometimes loses it’s meaning, but a sense that I have the ability to control my world, to decide what comes in and what leaves, is a joyous sense of freedom which gave me the ability to truly listen to my soul for the first time. It also gave me the courage to let action flow from my deepest desires of what I wanted my life to look like.

And as I read about women in much harsher life circumstances than I can ever imagine being in, I wonder if sport could be transformative for them, too. I wonder if it would help them recover from tragedy and brutality, providing a safe space to release anger, to heal and to find their own voice again. I wonder if it would help those still in dangerous personal situations find the strength to do what seems difficult at the time to create a new and better life for themselves.

What would happen if we put aside the notions of women and sport that we hold on to collectively as a society and just let women run, bike, swim, compete? Would we save some lives? Would we make a difference in our own?

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~ by amymoritz on January 9, 2010.

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