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Beating the blokes not a measure of greatness

Next weekend, athlete Melissa Breen will compete in one of Australia’s most prestigious races - the Stawell Gift. Breen - who recently broke a 20 year-old record by racing 100 metres in just 11.11 seconds - is now the fastest female sprinter in Australia.

Breen is aiming to make it through to the semi-finals of the esteemed annual race and if she succeeds, she will become the first woman in the event’s 133 year history to do so.

Breen was interviewed about her impending race, saying she is "keen to challenge myself against the men".

I know I should be impressed - ''wow, look at her! Taking on the blokes! Girl power!'' - but I’m not. The sports world is filled with examples of women taking on men in their own game; Margaret Court and Billy Jean King taking on Bobby Riggs on the tennis court are the best-known examples. More often than not, it’s billed as a circus or ''battle of the sexes''.

At best, what these events do is showcase these women's raw talent to a wider audience. At worst, they are tokenistic and do nothing to promote women’s sport. If anything, it reduces women’s talents to something that is only proven when she has beaten a man.

If a female athlete wins, she will be showered with praise because she defeated a man. And if she loses? Well, it’s clearly because she just isn’t good enough. The sexist catch-cry of ''go back to playing with the other girls'' is insulting because it suggests competing against their peers isn’t enough.


Breen isn’t the first woman to ''take on the boys'': in March, Canadian Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados made her debut playing in the men’s Southern Professional Hockey League, scoring 27 saves against Knoxville Ice Bears.

Danica Patrick is one of only a handful of women who compete at the highest level in car racing. Whether a woman competes against men because it’s the only option or to make a point, these battles of the sexes aren’t really about sport; they’re about politics.

As in politics, if a woman fails some cry that all women shouldn’t be in positions of leadership. But if a man fails, it’s a personal weakness and his gender is not an issue.

There is rarely a real winner from these contests. A winning performance by a woman brings a short-term spike in recognition. And if the man wins? Well, everybody can relax - the status quo is OK.

Sometimes, women compete against men because there’s no female-only competition. Every four years, a sport previously open only to men is given its female equivalent at the Olympics; at the recent winter games in Sochi, ski jumping was opened up to women for the first time. But it came 90 years after men first competed in the event and only after the former mayor of Salt Lake City - which hosted the games in 2002 - Deedee Corradini, took the International Olympic Committee to court, citing discrimination.

And it was just two years ago, at the London Olympics, that every competing nation had at least one woman in their team. Astonishing.

I wish Breen all the best when she races at Stawell, and wish the male competitors well, too. She doesn’t need to compete against men to prove she’s a star athlete, because she already is.