Hypermasculinity at the Finish Line

02/10/2014 10:30 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

If this week you happen to be in Lausanne and hear a rumbling, that's probably the sound of Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin tumbling around in his grave. He's apparently heard that the biggest story around the Sochi Olympics has been Russia's denial of basic human rights for men who didn't fit his definition of manhood (and women whose desires and lives he could not have fathomed.) That, plus the fact that female athletes are ever-closer to parity at the games would deeply unsettle the father of the modern Olympics.

After all, de Courbertin was part of the wave of 19th century men in Europe and the United States who created our contemporary world of sport because they were fearful boys were becoming feminized. Boys were being taught by women and no longer worked alongside their fathers, industry was deskilling men's jobs and, most frightening of all, the early feminists were making great strides. Soon, these men feared, there would be no real men.

If this sounds disturbingly similar to some of the chatter these days about the end of men, it's because the Western world was experiencing its first crisis of masculinity.

Men of power literally asked where they would find men to go into battle, administer the colonies, and run their companies and governments. Says our friend and colleague, Bruce Kidd, an Olympic runner, Commonwealth Games gold medalist and sports scholar, the Olympics and organized sport would prepare young men for all this by "instilling physical and mental toughness [and] obedience to authority."

The organized, bureaucratized, rule-bound, performance-measuring, industrialized world of sport was not only perfect for the times, it was a far cry from traditional games of play upon which sport developed. And it was certainly different from the ancient Greek Olympiad, which included fights to the finish and had no concept of sportsmanship.

But mainly, sport became a space where men would dominate and a specific notion of manhood would reign triumphant. According to two other friends and colleagues, it was a place to celebrate "the most extreme possibilities of the male body" (Michael Messner) that would be a "male ritual with great power" likened to combat (Varda Burstyn).

Don't get us wrong. In spite of all this, so many of us, including the two of us, enjoy playing or watching sports for the sheer joy of physicality, personal challenge, and collective fun. There is comradeship and intimacy, and it's a place to celebrate our bodies, learn self-discipline, and value hard work.

And yet, organized sport has had a number of terrible outcomes for boys and men. Yes, it can help boys learn to overcome hardships, but it also teaches boys to hide vulnerabilities and show a stoic indifference to injury.

It celebrates a hypermasculinity where manhood is measured in muscles. The chiseled body and the winning performance become the gold standard of masculinity -- unobtainable to all but a few and thus a very bad model for 99.9 percent of men.

Because it teaches youth to ignore nature's great warning sign, that is, pain, and because of the glorification of self-sacrifice, extreme risk-taking, and the ever-increasing strength and size of athletes, sport is now a place of ever-increasing injuries, well beyond the inevitable bruises and broken bones that accompany physical activity.

Sport has been a platform for homophobia, a place where most gay and bisexual athletes dare not come out -- which is no surprise because few athletes have not heard homophobic taunts from coaches or other players. Humiliation for not being tough enough or a "real man" awaits any boy or man who can't make the grade.

Sport instills a winner-take-all definition of manhood. The hundredth of a second difference between a "winner" and a "loser" casts long shadows not only over the vast majority who fail to ever win, but across the culture as a whole. It's no surprise that as social inequality increases so do the rewards to elite athletes and the budgets for the Olympics: sport is a template for a world where one percent are winners while the rest of us must remain content to watch spectacles.

In recent years, women have won impressive victories in their fight for equality within sport. That should be cheered. Unfortunately, they are affected by some of the same negative outcomes pushed in the sports created by de Coubertin and his friends. The reason is simple: the rule books, the concepts and design of our sports and organized games, and the very ethos of modern sport celebrates the same ideals whether they are played by men or women, straight or gay. And while school coaches and Olympic organizers rightly speak of sport's positive ideals, they tend to be silent about the vision of manhood, or indeed womanhood, that comes with such a cost.

There is much we need to do to dismantle the harmful aspects of sport, some of which we've explored in our advocacy brief men and sports. Here are a few:

Let's end our assumption that boys and girls should play miniature versions of high-performance sport where there are winners and losers. Make all children's sport coed. Encourage creative play. Let's train our coaches to celebrate and encourage health and comradeship, rather than physical sacrifice and beating the enemy. Let's rewrite the rule books at all levels.

Let's stop encouraging violence. We need to end blood sports, narrow the range of acceptable contact with sports like hockey and U.S. football, and impose lifetime bans on athletes who fight or purposefully cause injuries (and the same should go to coaches who condone on- or off-field violence by their players). Let's develop programs for male athletes and coaches to challenge homophobia and work to prevent sexual, physical and emotional violence in their personal relationships.

Let's create games, play, and athletics that will truly enhance our lives, jettison destructive visions of manhood, and be a delight for us all.