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Category Archives: fitness and sport

The Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club

January 19, 2014

Fifteen for Section 15 #5

With a winning average of 95 percent, The Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club, “The Grads,” are among the most successful teams in sport history.

Basketball was a relatively new sport for girls when the Grads formed in 1915. Unlike gymnastics and military drill, which were usually offered to school-aged girls, basketball was a fast paced, competitive, team sport. The game was growing rapidly in North America around this time with girls clubs and leagues forming in many major cities. Basketball was an ideal sport for working class women who could not afford to join the more elite curling, golf and tennis clubs of Edmonton. The team practiced two evenings a week at local school gymnasiums and on a military base. Members of the Grads were, primarily, graduates of McDougall Commercial High School in Edmonton, Alberta. As a “commercial” school, McDougall offered students vocational training. The Grads were mostly white working-class women from Edmonton’s “north side,” who were employed as secretaries and stenographers in local businesses. Most players came to practice and games after finishing work for the day. They had to request time off to travel to tournaments, though many local businesses felt it was desirable to have a Grad on staff, and offered team members flexibility to travel.

EdmontongradsDuring the Grad’s heyday, physical educators were divided about whether girl’s basketball should have separate rules from the boy’s game. Middle class female educators with specialized training tended to prefer the “girl’s rules” that were standardized in 1899. In the girl’s game, players were restricted to either half or one-third of the court and physical contact was discouraged so as to prevent undue demands on players’ vitality. Many female physical educators also wanted to discourage competition among girls, stressing “play for play’s sake” instead of the commercially oriented games and tournaments more common to men’s leagues. Girl’s rules were most common in Eastern Canada and the United States, where university educated, female professionals, acted as coaches to young women. In the western parts of the continent, including Alberta, there were fewer trained female physical educators and so male coaches, who lacked specialized training, worked with female players. Grads coach J. Percy Page initially trained his team using girl’s rules, but switched to boy’s rules in 1923 so that his team could play against competitors from the western United States. To counter local critics who felt the men’s game was too vigorous for women, Page had players get clearance from a medical doctor. When pressed on the safety of girl’s playing by men’s rules, Page would tell reporters that many former Grads had healthy babies.

Between 1923 and 1940, the Grads held, at different times, the titles of provincial, national and world champions. This success is particularly striking given the economic uncertainty and high unemployment rates of the 1930s. Despite these limitations, not to mention the cost and slow speed of travel in this era, the Grads attracted numerous Canadian and American teams to play in Edmonton. These tournaments attracted large audiences. On more than one occasion the city’s phone lines crashed due to the volume of calls to a local “hotline” reporting their game scores. Also remarkable is the extent to which the Grads travelled in North America and Europe. While Basketball was not an Olympic sport, the team twice competed in Europe at the “women’s games” organized by the Federation sportives féminine internationale. The team also played demonstration basketball at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and were recognized as part of the Canadian Olympic delegation in 1936 in Berlin.

The Grads officially disbanded around 1940, mostly due to World War II. The team’s training spaces were needed for members of the military. Most Grad team members went on to excel in other sports, including baseball, golf, curling and bowling. The Grad’s reunited frequently both before and after Coach Page’s death in 1973. Eventually, the team even established a newsletter and appointed an archivist whose job it was to respond to media requests and keep track of Grads documents. Their legacy is documented in The Grads are Playing Tonight!” by M. Ann Hall, which I have reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Sociology of Sports Journal.

Women’s sport generated a lot of excitement – among players and fans – during the 1930s. This era is sometimes known as the “Golden Age” of women’s sport in Canada. I’m wary of declaring era better than another, because we know that girls and women have been seeking out opportunities to play for many decades. Still, the Grads are particularly noteworthy for their dedication to the game and popularity.

Clara Hughes: Changing the Conversation About Sport and Health

November 27, 2013

Fifteen for Section 15 #4

What makes a great athlete? For me, it is someone who is accomplished but who has also shaped or changed the cultural conversation in some way. In his book Celebrity: Fame in Contemporary Culture, David Marshall likens the place of the “celebrity” in contemporary culture to Roland Barthes’ conception of the “sign”. Marshall argues, “like the sign, the celebrity represents something other than itself” (56). Celebrities, or for the purposes of this post, let’s say celebrated athletes, are those in who have some kind of cultural currency.

Clara Hughes is one of only four athletes to win multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympics. Hughes won two bronze medals for cycling in the 1996 Olympic games, then switched to speed skating, winning a bronze medal in the 2002 5000 metre race, a gold and a bronze in speed skating in 2006 and another bronze in 2010. In what was (apparently) her final Olympic race, cycling in the 2012 London games, Hughes placed fifth, close, but 32 seconds away from a medal.

In 2011 Hughes made an unprecedented move in her personal life, becoming spokesperson for the “Let’s Talk,” a Canadian mental health awareness campaign. Hughes has appeared in ads for “Let’s Talk” and spoken to the media in-depth about her experiences with depression. In 2014, she is doing a cross-Canada bike tour to raise money for the campaign and to raise awareness of mental health issues. Hughes also does outreach with other organizations, including Right to Play, and has had other sponsorships.

Depression, and mental health in general, are perceived (by some) as weaknesses and can be a taboo topic for discussion. Talking about depression, as the campaign’s title suggests, is a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Joining “Let’s Talk” is much more impactful than typical athlete outreach or sponsorships. It is a pun-y thing to say, but Hughes really changed the conversation about her career, and also about mental health. She is proof that physical strength doesn’t preclude mental challenges. And at the same time she offers a face, maybe a coping model, maybe hope, to Canadians experiencing mental health issues.

And Hughes makes me think of David Marshall’s book because she has done something that other celebrities don’t often or can’t do: radically transform how we know her in a short period of time. This ups Hughes’ cultural currency because she has made her legacy about more than her titles and records. And yes, this is a campaign sponsored by a media corporation, so Hughes benefits even as she gives back. Still, it seems to me that Clara Hughes could have traded on her accomplishments or her beauty in the search for sponsorship, but instead she has chosen a more complicated path.

Barbara Ann Scott: No Fragile Mamet

November 18, 2013

Fifteen for Section 15, #3

Written accounts of Barbara Ann Scott, the 1947 and 1948 European and World Champion women’s figure skater, and 1948 Olympic gold medalist, offered exhausting descriptions of her appearance. A 1948 Time magazine attempt extended to a paragraph:

Barbara Ann, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, saucer-size blue eyes and a rosebud mouth, is certainly pretty enough. Her light brown hair falls pageboy style on her shoulders. She weighs a trim, girlish 107 lbs., she is neither as full-bosomed as a Hollywood starlet nor as wide-hipped as most skaters. She looks, in fact, like a doll which is to be looked at but not touched. But Barbara Ann is no fragile mamet. She is the woman’s figure skating champion of the world (2 February 1948, p. 35).

The Barbara Ann Scott doll, from www.civilization.ca

Scott retired from amateur skating and turned professional in the early 1950’s. She became the headliner of North America’s largest ice skating show the Hollywood Ice Revue in 1952. In addition to the estimated $100,000 she earned each year from professional skating, she held endorsement deals with Canada Dry, Community Silverplate and Timex. Eaton’s also produced a Barbara Ann Scott doll well into the 1950s. Scott donated at least some of her earnings to a charity she founded, and in her spare time she was a pilot and an accomplished golfer. She married in 1955, but had no children. She raised horses for the rest of her life, and appeared from time to time at public events, including as an Olympic torch-bearer for the 1988 and 2010 games. Barbara Ann Scott died in 2012, at the age of 84.

I’ve always loved Barbara Ann for her seeming contradictions. Scott’s public image, as a pretty teenager, belied the more complicated and impressive reality of her life. Her success is a reminder of the different roles female athletes negotiate in their work as competitors and entrepreneurs-mothers–spokespeople. Scott’s appearance really lent itself to advertisers’ vision of femininity in the 1950s but her life story is a reminder that there is always much more beneath the surface of an athlete than her public image. But, Barbara Ann Scott makes my Fifteen for Section 15 list because of her success. She is the only Canadian singles skater to win gold at the Olympic games, she was a three time winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy (1945, 1947, 1948), a two-time World Champion, successful professional skater, entrepreneur, philanthropist, pilot and icon.

The Runners (1907): Leaky Hegemony

November 5, 2013

Fifteen for Section 15, #2

Three women running a race, Toronto Island. - [1907?]

The City of Toronto has many great archival images of sport, but this one of women running on Toronto Island c. 1907 is my favourite. I love it because of the juxtaposition of the runners’ clothing with their facial expressions. The runners’ determination is clear from the strain on the faces. These women are going all out, skirts, stocking feet and cinched waists be damned.

Another reason I love this image is that it challenges our perceptions of female athletes in history. One truism often repeated in stories about female athletes is that women’s sport has finally arrived. Today, as compared to in the past, women can pursue sport without fear of social sanction or lost femininity. While it is true that female athletes had fewer opportunities to play in the past, this narrative makes it seem as though women discovered sport in the last thirty years. This just isn’t true, and this image of runners from 1907 is evidence that women have always been fierce competitors, even if their athleticism or activities don’t look the same as they do today.

Historian M. Ann Hall argues that “the history of women in sport is a history of cultural resistance…the very presence of women in the male preserve of sport is evidence of ‘leaky hegemony.’” Recognizing “leaks” in the system, women have sought out opportunities to participate in sport, pushed to form their own teams and leagues, asked for physical culture programs in school, embraced riding bicycles and (numerous other new sports), and so on. So it isn’t that times have changed and it is now okay for women to be athletic. Rather, generations of female athletes have pushed at the boundaries of sport and carved out the spaces that women and fans enjoy today.

On my Fifteen for Section 15 list, “The Runners” represent the unheralded and invisible work of Canadian female athletes of the past.

Fifteen for Section 15 (& Nine for IX)

October 25, 2013

This summer ESPN released nine documentaries about women’s sport, in honour of the thirtieth anniversary of Title IX. Title IX is a section of the Education Amendments Act (USA, 1972) that requires federally funded schools to provide equal opportunities to girls and boys. Applied to sport, this provision has resulted in increased opportunities and funding for girls and women. Nine for IX focuses exclusively on female athletes and issues in women’s sport, including branding, objectification, female journalists in the locker room and the intersection of sport/politics. I like these documentaries because women’s voices and experiences are central to the narrative. Watching Nine for IX got me thinking about Canadian female athletes, and the pioneers, issues, and victories that have defined women’s sport in this country.

Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (kind of) offers Canadian women similar protections to Title IX. Known as the “equality provision” Section 15 states “every individual is equal before and under the law.” Canadian feminists have used this provision to challenge polices that excluded girls from playing on the same sports teams as boys. In honour of Section 15, I’m compiling a list of women and events that have shaped the history of sport in this country. In the next few months I’ll share fifteen of theses stories and my (highly subjective) take on why they matter.

First:

I. Justine Blainey

Blainey_CourtCaseJustine Blainey won a spot in the Metro Toronto Hockey League in 1981, but league regulations prohibited girls from playing and she didn’t get to stay on the team. This was legal at the time. In 1985-6 Blainey successfully challenged section 19(2) of the Ontario Human Rights Code that excluded girls/women from playing on boy’s/men’s sports teams. Section 19(2) was struck down because it contravened Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Blainey’s “test case” effectively made it illegal for amateur sports teams to discriminate on the basis of gender. After five years and a legal battle supported by L.E.A.F. and CAAWS, Blainey won the right to play on a boys team. This set a legal precedent and Canadian girls and women are now allowed to join boys/men’s teams.

The question of whether elite girls/women should play with boys has been divisive for sports feminists. Some feel that gender segregated teams will foster a stronger sporting culture among girls and women. Letting girls play with boys, by comparison, will stunt the growth of girls/women’s sport in Canada. Others feel it is better to let girls play with the “best,” regardless of gender. The real victory, in my opinion, is that Blainey’s case has established that “equality” for girls and women can include both access to boys’ teams and to separate girls’ teams. Skill, rather than gender, should determine where women compete.

Last year the CBC interviewed Blainey on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of The Charter.

The Halton District School Board has a learning resource on Blainey for elementary students that can be found here.

And, hey, if you live near Brampton and need a chiropractor, why not hire Justine Blainey?

International Women’s Day

March 5, 2012

I am preparing a talk for International Women’s Day (IWD) on fat activism. Why does it exist and why does it matter? In casting about for a way to explain this to members of the Mount Allison community, I came across this quote from Breakfast of Champions. I think it is a good one. I know that Vonnegut (1922-2007) was definitely not talking about fat activism here, but Kilgore Trout’s epitaph does speak to the important relationship between “health” and equity issues.

Fat activism is a demand for fair treatment and social inclusion. This might include recognition that a person can be healthy at any size, or the development of programs that acknowledge different cultural perspectives on nutrition and health. Like other groups who demand equitable health care, people who organize groups and develop social sites for fat people want to extend the definition of well-being beyond the physical body to the social, cultural and economic realm.  This movement, therefore, serves as a reminder to put humane treatment and equity issues at the forefront of health policy and discourse.

Fitness for Every Body

October 7, 2011

I’ve been working on a review article for a new journal, Fat Studies, on recent exercise DVDs for larger people. The DVDs (Yoga, Belly Dancing, Scuba) are all great – I won’t pre-empt the review here.

A drawing by Ingrid Laue for the Large as Life Fitness Program, c. 1981-2.

Instead, I’ll note that in preparation for writing the article I reviewed some new and older medical studies on the benefits of exercise for people who are defined medically as “obese.” This research, published in places like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that exercise, cardiovascular health and blood pressure, rather than weight and food intake, are key determinants of health.

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