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Girls playing sports is not about winning gold medals. It’s about self-esteem, learning to compete and learning how hard you have to work in order to achieve your goals.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist in track and field


The history of women and sport is one filled with both glorious achievements and debatable myths. We have seen women embrace physical activity as they entered higher educational institutions and participated in many sports from lawn bowling to gymnastics, eventually taking their place proudly in national and international competition in both winter and summer Olympic sports. We have also seen women limited in their participation by their role in society, like the “Bloomer Girls” baseball teams of the early 20th century who played professional baseball but only until the war years were over and men could once again “play the game.”

Myths related to understanding the differences between the sexes have also held women back from equal participation in sport. The first modern marathon Olympic race was held in 1896 with only male participants, as it was believed that women were not strong enough to complete a marathon and that the endurance would damage their reproductive organs. It took 88 years before women were allowed to participate in an Olympic marathon and rightly took their place in the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Understanding women’s health requires an understanding of both sex and gender aspects of health:

  • Sex refers to the anatomical and physiological differences that characterize men and women.

  • Gender refers to the sociological, environmental, and psychological influences that affect a woman’s opportunities and access to sport and health services.

Sex and gender differences

Although differences exist between the sexes, there are far more similarities between men and women than between males and females in many other species.

Sex differences

Sex differences include anatomical and physiological characteristics such as female organs, smaller bone structure, hormonal differences, and body composition differences in fat and muscle mass. Sex characteristics contribute to differences in prevalence and incidence of injury or disease throughout the lifespan. Some physiological differences between the sexes from the female perspective in relation to exercise performance are shown in Table 43.1.

Table 43.1

Some physiological differences between the sexes from the female perspective in relation to exercise performance

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