David J. Neal: Women’s hockey deserves better as sexism prevents physicality

Thursday, the United States and Canada meet again for the women’s hockey gold medal bringing all that’s great in a hockey rivalry: tremendous skill, familiarity, history, resentment from the U.S. (Canadians arrogant about hockey), resentment from Canada (Americans arrogant about everything else).

Well, everything except bodychecking.

The big, beautiful hit remains illegal in women’s hockey and it’s a damned shame. Instead, there’s sneaky pokes and bumps behind the play, nastiness between plays from emotion never unleashed in the contact that’s part of what makes the game so wonderful.

Some coaches and smaller women’s players say no legal hitting means greater emphasis on skill and speed, which is ridiculous. Even on the slimmer North American rinks with the larger bodies of men’s hockey, two talented teams playing hard bring the whole hockey hat trick: slick plays, high energy, bodies thumping.

Then you have the “more parents will let their girls play without checking” line. Even as the father of a daughter, that argument acquiesces to a patronizing sexism that should be an anathema to any desiring Olympian. In fact, the whole lack of bodychecking grows from a desire to still see athletic women as delicate flowers to be protected.

Gymnastics, figure skating and diving long ago got slotted as women’s sports, not activities for “real men.” So much so that it’s been decades since anybody’s been surprised or cared if the best male athletes in those sports is a homosexual. We question whether the NFL will accept Michael Sam decades after “Greg Louganis” became synonymous with “diving” despite his sexuality being obvious to anyone but the most obtuse.

Those sports are “pretty” activities. We marvel at the precision of the balance beam or landing a jump on thin figure skate blades. But there’s no physical infliction of domination on an opponent. Indeed, each activity is judged with few empirical elements.

So, what’s often ignored is the toughness each sport requires at the Olympic level. Remember Louganis banging his head on the platform on the way to gold at the 1988 Olympics? Every top level diver, of either gender, has gone head-to-board-or-platform. FIU diver Sabrina Beaupre, a former Pan Am Games diver, says she’s hit the board with every part of her body.

Also, try hitting the water wrong from 10 meters.

International gymnasts know the pain of being battered by imperfection. We don’t see all the times Gabby Douglas sailed above the balance beam, then caromed off it on the way to the floor.

How many slipped-grip crashes go into every uneven routine on parallel bars?

Same for figure skaters. They fall. Often. In an ungainly manner. On ice. Ice has zero give.

Without painful persistence, figure skaters don’t make their way out of their rink, forget reaching the Olympics.

We accept young women colliding with diving boards, balance beams, vaults, barely padded floors or ice, but we’re worried about them taking bodychecks while well-padded and on skates? Even if the hitter happens to be the second coming of 5-9, 190-pound U.S. Olympic great Angela Ruggiero, that’s illogical.

It’s nothing but hand-wringing sexism that I would consider an affront to my daughter.

Read more David J. Neal stories from the Miami Herald

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