DANGEROUS GAMES:  MASCULINITY IN SPORTS

There may be different definitions of masculinity that change over time, are culturally defined and surely individually subjective; however, it can also be safely assumed that there are agreed upon masculine traits that remain constant in our society and can be observed globally (Synnott, 2009).  Whether these are socially constructed or evolutionary biological is not of concern to this discussion, and would require more research and controversy than I am willing to take on, not to mention my lack of intellectual capacity.  In any case, as Whitehead aptly stated; “it is evident that, while masculinities may be illusory, the material consequences of many men’s practices are quite real enough” (2002, p. 43).  Hence, what this paper seeks to accomplish through literature review and informal interviews with cyclists, is demonstrate the dominant male characteristics that we find “real enough” in the realm of sport.

Sports may well be the final frontier for male hegemony in the Western world.  Without question women have, and continue to make, huge inroads in many other areas of our society, yet sport remains the domain of men.   While there is no doubt that women enjoy competing in sports, are good in sports, and can participate in most any event a man can, there is also no disputing that women’s athletic events have not enjoyed the immense popularity of men’s sports.    The main reasons may be that it does not attract the sponsors, the money or the advertisers.[1]  Unfortunately, (or not, depending on one’s perspective), at male sporting events women are often simply accoutrements to the men–pretty, nubile cheerleaders in basketball and football, scantily clad eye candy at boxing events, and lovely, yellow jersey presenters at the Tour de France.  Any of those functions being performed by an unattractive woman would be anathema.  And the consideration of men acting in those roles during any female sporting event would be laughably absurd.  Gender roles are glaringly obvious in this example[2].

My paper will focus on the sport of cycling, mainly because it is a sport I am somewhat familiar with through no merit or fault of my own.  My husband is an avid, some may say fanatical, amateur cyclist and was recently appointed Chairman of the Board of a U.S. pro cycling team.  His Trek Madone is what I only half-jokingly call his mistress.  When one of them inevitably gets hurt I will be there to pick up the pieces, figuratively speaking I hope.[3]

While one may not initially think of skinny, spandex clad men with smoothly shaved legs as being particularly masculine compared to football players (also sporting tight tights), for example, my research established that the men who participate in this sport distinctly exhibited hegemonic masculine behaviour.  Risk-taking, (edgework)[4] inherently associated with high speed, physical endurance and the capacity to suffer pain are all key elements in cycling.  Camaraderie with the boys, digging deep to challenge limits and using analytical abilities are also some masculine qualities we will look at.

Proving Masculinity

Mishkind, Rodin, Silberstein & Streigel-Moore (1986) declared, “With the twentieth-century decline of the practical relevance of physical strength in work and in warfare, representations of the male body as strong, virile, and powerful have taken on increasingly important ideological and symbolic significance in gender relations” (cited in Messner, 1992, pp. 168-69). In other words, the majority of men these days must have different outlets for expressing their masculinity. While society has gone to great lengths to make life more secure and safe, some men seek out dangerous activities seemingly to test their limits and perhaps their manhood.  These activities are a “desired choice—a way of fulfilling unmet needs…” (Lyng, 1990, p. 871).

Synnott (2009) asserted that being masculine goes far beyond just being born male. He stated “men have to prove their masculinity” not some, but all of the time (p. 23).  Paglia in Garcia (2008), wrote; “Men must do or risk something to be men.  Men become men only when other men say they are” (p. 125).[5]  It must be very stressful as a man to be constantly judged.  Amateur cyclist Mark told me that “males want to be on top of the pack, such that even casual Sunday rides will include, on purpose or not, a few episodes of sprinting for example to show what the pecking order is.”  Evidently, even during what he terms a casual Sunday ride, men feel they must be on the top of their game; they must strive to be the alpha dog of the aforementioned “pack”.  It is important to mention here that all of the men in my admittedly small sampling are Type A personalities with highly successful careers.  However, even as accomplished as they are, they feel compelled to mirror this success outside of the boardroom as well.

The Warrior

One way men can prove their masculinity and confirm their bodies as being strong, virile, and powerful is in the sporting arena.  However, competing is not enough; it is also important to win, as illustrated above, not only to prove their worthiness of the state of manhood to others but also to themselves.  Achievement and success are crucial to the male psyche.  And if things have to get a little bloody, literally or figuratively, so be it.  Cycling coach and former mountain bike racer and champion, Jay, rightly used the analogy of a battleground to describe cycling:

I see group rides and races ultimately like a battle.  Some guys will attack with an animal instinct and not really think of what they are doing.  They shift to their biggest gear, let out a battle cry, and spin the pedals with a look of pain and suffering on their faces.  Others play battle differently with a sense of tactics and patiently wait for some to make simple mistakes and attack quietly with one swift move.  Some have no idea what is going on and are simply trying to survive.

A more vivid war time description comes from pro rider Tom Danielson in the December 2012 issue of VeloNews magazine:

         You’re in a lot of crashes, you’re put in a lot of dangerous situations, but for me, that moment, laying on the ground, seeing tons of bloody, injured, bodies, hearing the screams, watching the directors and mechanics running in every direction, trying to get to riders or get bikes, watching the EMT’s, and looking above and watching a helicopter film me laying on the ground, hearing the chopper blades—it felt like being at war (p. 6).

That really is survival of the fittest.  You have to be fit, you have to be fast, but you also have to be smart and tougher than the next guy.  There are tactics involved in winning a race.  One of them is enduring pain and hiding it from your opponents.  Cyclists often spend hours learning how not to breathe hard; not to make noises or faces when in pain, and if they see an opponent showing any of these signs of weakness will immediately take advantage of the situation.  Certainly men already have an advantage over women, seeing that they are socialized from an early age to mask their emotions in their everyday lives.

Pain Management

On average men die younger than women, one reason being that they do not take as good care of their bodies as they might or should.[6]  They tend to ignore and disregard pain.  Men frequently view their bodies as instruments, particularly in the competitive world of sports.  Cycling is an exceptionally pain-filled and dangerous sport.  “Even in a saturated extreme sports universe that includes football, boxing, mixed martial arts, hockey, rock climbing, Formula 1 car racing, and alpine skiing, bike racing remains one of the most dangerous sports in the world (VeloNews, p. 35).

Typical of an elite rider, Tyler Hamilton (2012), declared he is “good at pain” (p. 15). He thought he had an edge in racing because one of his gifts is to keep going no matter how much pain he is in.  He has had to have caps put on many of his teeth because of grinding them down while racing with injuries and in severe pain (p. 169).  The teeth grinding was a distraction from the pain, much like biting the bullet in those old Western movies.

He also wryly informed the readers of his book that his former teammate Jonathan Vaughters “likes to say, if you want to feel what it’s like to be a bike racer, strip down to your underwear, drive your car 40 mph, and leap out the window into a pile of jagged metal” (p. 57).  It sounds like not only to you have to be macho but you have to be masochistic as well!

As painful as it is to crash, it is also painful to just ride sometimes.  And a key ingredient to winning is not letting your opponents know you are hurting.  Any Tour de France aficionado is well familiar with “the look” Lance Armstrong would give his opponents as he put pedal to the metal and sped past them.  It may have been killing him, but his demeanour was demoralizing to the other racers and generally left them eating his dust.  48 year-old businessman Adam summed it up this way while revealing to me some of his battle tactics:

More often than not winning will come down to who has the biggest balls going down the fast descents, who can work through the pain of the climbs and not show it, or who shows up at breakfast the next morning and is able to appear tough enough to do it again and again although they wished they were still in bed.  A friend and former Canadian champion and Olympian cyclist has repeatedly told me, that if you feel strong you should look weak, and if you feel weak you should look strong.  And my coach likes to remind me before I go to battle it out with my buddies: “When the race is at its hardest is the time to attack.  You may be crying at this point but attack anyway.”  Real men can attack when the race is at its hardest.

Adam is deadly serious about cycling and what it means for him to be a real man. And rest assured, his coach must surely have meant crying on the inside!

In a recent VeloNews magazine devoted to the dangers of cycling, it stated that “pain and racing are synonymous” (2012).  Additionally, it is not a matter of if you will crash; it is a matter of when and how badly.  The point of all of the above is that being able to give and receive pain is found in many, if not most, male dominated sports.  Being tough and not a “sissy” are commands probably given by most coaches to their male athletes.  One man’s coach told him to “grow some balls” when he expressed fear about the extremely high speeds attained on steep descents, particularly after seeing a riding buddy fall off a cliff on a hairpin turn.  Fortunately, this fellow got up, brushed himself off, put a Band-Aid on it and continued the race.   In any event, that humiliating comment actually produced the effect intended.   He learned to use his mind to control the fear.  No way was he going to be left behind “sans balls”, if you will.  The skill involved in this type of “edgework” is being able to maintain control, physically and mentally, in a situation that could result in injury or death.  Going 60 mph downhill with a group of riders involves extreme trust in oneself as well as the other riders.  It can be a tremendous bonding experience when you reach the end of the race unscathed[7]. “I almost got killed yesterday” is an oft heard and often offhand, almost nonchalant comment spoken in cycling circles (Albert, 1999, p. 163).  “My thought was that this would kill him, kill me or kill both of us”, informant Adam told me describing one particularly grueling sprint to the finish line.  Personally I choose a pain-free life, therefore I do yoga, and for speed, excitement and fancy footwork the occasional Zumba class.  When on a bike, I prefer to stay on the bicycle path.  But enough about me—apparently many males accept pain and injury as a small price for playing the game.

Suck it up, Buttercup

Messner (1992) unsparingly criticized sportsmen stating:

Homophobia and misogyny were the key bonding agents among males athletes, serving to construct a masculine personality that disparaged anything considered “feminine” in women, in other men, or in oneself.  The fact that winning was premised on physical power, strength, discipline, and willingness to take, ignore, or deaden pain inclined men to experience their own bodies as machines, as in instruments of power and domination—and to see other peoples’ bodies as objects of their power and domination” (p. 151).

 While Messner is being unduly harsh, masculine defined as simply being the opposite of feminine (Synnott, 2009) is a reality.  Hence the language used to humiliate or punish male athletes for any seemingly show of weakness is one of comparison of the masculine with the “other”.  Dan, a cyclist in his 50’s says one thing you want to avoid on a group ride is “getting chicked”; meaning having a woman beat you.  Another expression he has heard in the coffee shops after a group ride is “What happened to you; did your skirt get caught in the gears?”  And my personal favourite for when the going gets tough is “suck it up buttercup”.  There is nothing quite like being compared to a diminutive yellow flower, or is it a weed?

Southerland (2011), a professional cyclist expressed his frustration at another rider after a crash in this way:

This was a guy who would go on to win stages of the Tour of Georgia, and stages of major European races, and here he is, sounding like a toddler with a boo-boo.  I knew he wasn’t seriously injured—his fall had been cushioned by landing on me.  I got really angry at this prima donna.  I’m on bottom—literally and figuratively—and he’s bawling (p. 171).

Happily for this young man, Southerland did not use any names as I am sure he would not like to be recognized as simultaneously a bawling baby and a prima donna!  That is hardly a glowing portrayal for any athlete.

Of course being called a pussy, or a fag are all too common expressions as well, and let’s not forget the old standby, “man the f*** up”.  To man up must mean to suppress any emotion, fear or pain.  It might be fun to come up with a list of what “woman up” could mean.  At any rate, learning to man up apparently starts at an early age.  Referring to Little League baseball, sociologist Jay Coakley said, “Many participants do not report small injuries for fear that they will be taken out of the game or be accused of being babies (cited in Messner, 1992, p. 75).  And it sure does not get any better as you grow older.  You can apparently be labelled a crybaby, or worse, at any age.

It is widely considered appropriate male behaviour to continue playing with pain, and inappropriate behaviour that one will be called out on if you fail to do so.  Athletes who participate while injured or in pain, or who perform risky or dangerous manoeuvers during sports are “consistently framed as heroes; conversely, those who removed themselves from games due to injuries had questions raised about their characters, their manhood” (Messner, 2000, p. 387).  In other words, not only athlete’s sporting ability or sportsmanship would be called in question, their very manhood would be judged, and judged very harshly indeed.

One of my informants, Rick, a cycling enthusiast in his early 50’s insisted that the above-mentioned derogatory terms are outdated and that when he races with younger men, he has never heard these disparaging remarks.  He declared that he really does not see any particular masculine behaviour in cycling and that it can be chalked up to simply behaving competitively, and that this is found in both men and women.  Cyclist Clint agreed saying, “While you have used the term masculinity, I think those who take cycling seriously exhibit athlete tendencies”.  I countered that competitiveness and athleticism as masculine traits can be found in both of the sexes and that there is, of course a continuum of masculinity and femininity.  This was not an issue to the discussion as far as I was concerned at least.  I also sensed a slightly defensive attitude in their statements which I thought unfounded.  Although Rick denied anything particularly masculine about the sport, it is notable that he resisted the ubiquitous leg shaving routine until after his first crash, yet thought nothing of waxing his chest.  He obviously had some notions of what constitutes masculinity–at least as far in the personal grooming department.

The Hero

A serious athlete must use his mind and his body equally in order to effectively compete and win.  Messner (1992) declared that “the successful athlete must learn to block or ignore fears, anxieties, or any other inconvenient emotions, while mentally controlling his body to perform its prescribed tasks” (p. 64).

Adam clearly confirmed this statement when he passionately explained to me why he loves to race:

I love multi-day pro-like cycling events because of the immense physical and mental challenge they represent. It is the ultimate personal test: Can I get ready for it although it is not my job? Can I get ready for it although I have a family and a full time job? Can I complete the event? How much can I push my limits?  It is not just a bike ride, it is an adventure. It is an adventure that starts months before the actual event. You need to seriously prepare for it and once you show up, the real work starts. You constantly need to battle physical and mental fatigue, doubts, long stretches of flat straight roads with a crosswind and steep hairy descents. Each morning, you wake up so tired you feel like you can’t ride ten miles yet you go out and ride a hundred miles and battle the last three miles as if your life depended on it. What is there not to like about discovering the limits of your own body and brain?

The above quote surely demonstrates the hero on a quest who has left his everyday world to find adventure and success after months of physical and mental preparation.   This passionate statement eloquently and unambiguously describes the hero’s desire to “live dangerously” and be someone who is willing to “fight to achieve goals” (Synnott, pp. 103-104).  There is a “jubilation” according to Le Breton (2000) in his research, “that is enhanced by fatigue, the proximity of danger and the idea of being able to continue to the end” (p. 3).  Certainly, Adam would have no problem in echoing those sentiments.

Heroism is a hegemonic male trait that is highly valued in our society in the past, today and for always, I daresay.  And yes, women can be heroes too, but one does not have to look far to agree that it is men who make up the majority of heroes.  Recently, we have seen splendid examples of male heroism arising from the tragedy of 9/11, but we have always depended on the hegemonic males in society to protect us and almost have an expectation of men to behave this way when the opportunity is thrust upon them.  We have little but disdain for the captain of the cruise liner in Italy for example, who abandoned his ship and passengers recently in order to save himself.  Whereas the captain of the Titanic will forever be remembered for his heroism.

The Cheater

Hamilton (2012) stated that while riding when doping  you “push past all the warning signs, past all the usual walls.  You get to that place where you’ve fallen a thousand ties, and all of a sudden you can hang there.  You’re not just surviving; you’re competing, making moves, dictating the race” (p. 167).   This short quote amply illustrates all the dominant masculine traits one can think of.  One sees the language of competition, survival, dictating and taking control, conquering warning signs and vanquishing danger.  Doping facilitates achieving these masculine traits especially in the upper echelons of sport.  Unfortunately, in many professional sports, if you do not dope, you cannot keep up.  And if you cannot keep up, you are a failure.  And we have already well-established that failure is not an option for the hegemonic male.  Messner (1992) stated that the “win at all costs” attitude in sports is what pushes athletes to take drugs that they know may be harmful to what they consider their “instrumental” bodies (p. 78).

Do men cheat or dope more than women?  The answer may be yes, but one reason may be that they feel they have little choice.  Athletes are often even encouraged by teammates and coaches to dope.  Remaining a “team player” may depend upon them using performance enhancing drugs and keeping their status as strong, virile and manly are powerful influences in themselves.   As Messner (1992) remarked, “the question is not ‘how could he take this dangerous drug?’  Instead, one wonders, how could he not have taken it?” (p. 78).  Hamilton (2012) explained that they could have used lie detectors on all the cheaters and they would have passed because they did not think of it as cheating.  “It felt fair to break the rules, because we knew others were too” (95).  I am sure the winning at all costs attitude has greatly influenced men in all aspects of their lives and has contributed to many of their downfalls.[8]  This is an attitude that I do not believe is as prevalent among women.

The Gentleman

            A perhaps unexpected aspect in professional, as well as amateur cycling, is cooperation.  One must form a gentlemen’s agreement, if you will, to ride successfully in the peloton.  As Clint informed me, “the peloton creates camaraderie without really trying”.  One must learn to take pulls and share the work load.  Racing long distances against the wind creates a situation wherein each rider takes the pace for short periods of time thereby conserving energy.  There is a balance between the individual rider and the group of riders that must be respected.  Riders who do not respect these unwritten rules will be noted and looked down upon.  A rider with any self-respect would not allow himself to be drafted the whole way by a stronger rider and then sprint to the finish for the win.  In fact, in such a case riders would not consider it to be a legitimate win.

Albert (1991) explained that in bike racing, neophytes must learn that unlike in other sports, the competition “becomes flexible rather than reified, often moving competitors between opposition and association and back again (p. 345).  This is sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, but in this sport it is unavoidable.  Cycling is actually a team sport. In a race, teams will typically each have nine riders who will work together to get their leader to the finish line first. As each team has the same goal, most teams will work together for hours sharing the load of riding in front into the wind only to find themselves battling each other like mad as the peloton gets close to the finish line.

Analyze This

One point that all my informants agreed upon was their desire to discuss any and all technical aspects of their biking.   Adam goes so far as to keep a blog with colourful graphs and detailed explanations.  As an example, his blog contains these statistics: “The Crane Valley Road was a 7.9 kilometer climb averaging a 5.2% grade and a 419 meter elevation gain.  In the 26.30 mins it took to complete the climb I put out an average of 261watts (272 watts normalized)”.  We tend to think of men as analytical and women as emotional.  In my many, many hours of listening to cyclists talk about their races and their training rides, I would have to emphatically declare that I hear much more talk of watts, elevations, power meters, gears, bikes, wheels and gadgets than emotions other than being tough, of course.  Go to any gathering point of cyclists yourself after an event and you will be convinced that most male cyclists get almost as much pleasure discussing the analytical aspects of the rides as they get from the ride itself.  You will certainly witness much back patting, (perhaps, back slapping is a more appropriate description), and some sympathy for any rider who had a bad ride due to a flat or a crash, but the talk will mostly centre around statistics and other “shop talk”.

Masculinity in the Aging Male

Whitehead (2002) asserted that “deteriorating health can weaken men’s associations with dominant codes of masculinity, while robust health speaks of men’s potency and mastery of situations” (p. 202). He cited Adams (1994) saying that older men’s friendships with other men contribute to a longer life span (p. 202).  Perhaps these are a couple of the reasons behind the popularity of cycling among middle-aged men.  The camaraderie experienced through group rides along with the liberal sharing of “fish stories”, and the notable physical fitness acquired through cycling contributes to their sense of well-being, health and therefore their sense of masculinity.

Dave, a man in his 60’s described his cycling in the following way:

During my 50’s and for sure today in my 60’s, my self-defined identity is morphing from making external statements to internal statements.  For example, the successful competition of an event rather that beating someone in the process is plenty for me to feel good about myself.  Or, maintain exceptional health with an eye towards seeing my grandchildren grow is very much an internal view to masculinity.  I suppose this is an acceptance that my endurance has slid but I would like to believe it is also a certain amount of maturity around the notion of masculinity – staying in the game is more important than winning.  But, I have not totally surrendered my DNA in the process.  In June this year I felt compelled to make a statement to a younger rider over several days in the Dolomites – mostly because I did not like him.  That was motivation enough to reach deep and drop the poor guy on every climb.  I sent him home dejected and it felt good…

Dave clearly has softened up over the years to a certain degree, but he has not thrown in the proverbial towel quite yet.  His testosterone and his DNA are still at play even as he shows a little sympathy for that other “poor” guy that he dropped.

Drummond (2008) stated that, “as men age and seemingly have fewer avenues in which to affirm their masculinity, being with other men with similar goals, aspirations, and ideologies is crucial to emotional well-being” (p. 34).  Additionally, because sport is “socially and culturally embedded as being masculine”, it offers the older man a way to engage and affirm their masculinity in a very positive way (p. 34).  Drummond’s research plainly demonstrates the importance of sport for maintaining a masculine self-image in the later years.  The masculine paradigm which begins so early in childhood continues well into the later years.

Conclusion

Sociologist  Patricia Sexton once said that “male norms stress values such as courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure and considerable amounts of toughness in mind and body” (cited in Donaldson, 1993, p. 646).

The combination of my literature review and my informant’s views clearly show that all of those traits of hegemonic masculinity are alive, well and thriving, at least in the realm of sports. Throw in the language of misogyny and homophobia and I think we just about covered it.  In fact, her definition could have been formed from reading this essay; however, those words were written about fifty years ago and only discovered by myself as I was concluding this paper.  My literature review and my informants all confirmed every single one of the traits she wrote of.  Certainly times have changed[9] and men and women have changed, but still much remains the same.


[1] Beach volleyball may be a visible exception, (no pun intended), especially since it is now part of the Summer Olympic Games. Fascinating.

[2] This trend is also obvious in sports advertising.

[3] He has already sustained some serious bruising after crashing and his bike has seen some cracks in its bones.  In fact, bikes need to be replaced due to wear and tear after a certain amount of miles just like cars.  My husband, on the other hand is irreplaceable.

[4] Lyng borrowed this term from journalist Hunter S. Thompson who used it to describe various anarchic experiences, drug use famously among them (1990, p. 855).  We might add the use of performance enhancing drugs among athletes to these “anarchic” experiences.  Risky behavior indeed!

[5] One informant told me of his friend who actually falsified a power file (data showing how many watts produced on a ride) to show to him.  I assume this was an effort to impress.

[6] See Synnott (2009, pp. 172-73) for statistics.  War, suicide and accidents also contribute to earlier deaths for men than women.

[7] Mark Twain once quipped; “Get a bicycle.  You will not regret it, if you live” (cited in Penn, 2010, p. 54).

[8] Lance Armstrong is one recent disgraceful example.

[9] I was recently slightly disconcerted to notice two well-groomed young men working in the skin care and cosmetics department in a downtown Pharmaprix one of whom asked me if I required any assistance.  I am pretty sure I blushed.  I wonder if they cycle. Or if they shave their legs.

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