Comment to World Rugby Trans Athlete Panel

World rugby recently conducted an expert panel into the participation of trans athletes – particularly male to female athletes – in rugby. This comprised of medical, legal and ethical expert opinion on the topic as well as contributions by those affected, notably players and others involved in rugby. I was disappointed not to have been asked to provide the expert philosophical opinion as I felt that I was able to offer a unique perspective in understanding the game as a player and coach as well as having a day job of philosopher of sport. But I think the omission was one ignorance rather than deliberate slight. Nevertheless, the convenor, Ross Tucker, asked if I would provide a written contribution which I give below:

Dear Ross,

Thanks for asking me to email your thoughts to pass on to the World Rugby consultation. Just to give you a little background on myself. I am currently a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and have a background in both philosophy and sport. I played rugby for over 15 years at various levels including national representation, and was part of national league and cup winning teams in both the 15s and 7s form of the game. Similarly I have coached women, again at various levels in both the 15s and 7s form for over 20 years. Overall, I have been involved in women’s rugby since 1995 and would consider I have very good knowledge and understanding of the game as both as a player and as a coach, but also from the perspective of an academic specialising in the philosophy and ethics of sport. I have published several books and many peer-reviewed articles in the philosophy of sport, am a former Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and am currently Associate Editor for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

On the issue of trans athletes in rugby, I have the following comments to make. First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is vital to recognise that any policy decisions affects the lives of real individuals, and with both populations (trans individuals and women) suffering from endemic societal discrimination, any policy recommendations need to be sensitive to this. My second comment is related to the concept of sex. I’m not convinced by the argument that sex is non biological but nevertheless the notions of biologically male and biologically female presuppose that there is a definitive and categorical means for determining this. However, as sports authorities have discovered over the years, sexual anatomy, chromosomal makeup, genetic markers and testosterone, etc. may not perfectly align for 100% of the population. And using proxies such as testosterone again presupposes that a) this is a reasonable substitute for sex, and b) it is a determinant of fair competition.

In relation to the specifics of rugby, it is worth bearing in mind the history and development of the women’s game. Women’s rugby was always marginalised and often (unreasonably) viewed as the epitome of the sport for ‘butch lesbians’. For a woman, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (and perhaps even today) to play rugby was to attract a fair degree of scorn and ridicule. Fortunately this is now changing. Nevertheless, rugby was a ‘safe’ environment for many women who didn’t always feel welcome in other sports or in other aspects of society. In particular, it allowed large, strong and powerful women to succeed at sport due to the attributes it tested. This is really important to remember if there is any suggestion that size and body mass is a relevant factor to determine physically safe sport for women. On a personal level, I have played with and against many women who have been much taller than me (I am 5’4”) and larger than me (in my playing days I was about 10.5 stone) and with a very ‘masculine’ appearance. But that was accepted because women’s rugby has always been a sport that is inclusive and accepting of all women’s bodies – again, due to the fact that it was a marginalised sport that many men believed was not appropriate for women to play. Facing someone who was significantly larger in stature and size is an accepted risk of rugby, and primarily requires good coaching techniques to ensure players can manage contact effectively. Any proposal to limit the size of players would radically alter the game at all levels and for all sexes. (And although there does seem to be a more recent deviation to a norm with male players since professionalisation, one only has to remember the difference in size and stature between players such as Jonah Lomu and Rory Underwood at the 1995 men’s World Cup to illustrate the acceptance of size difference in rugby.)

As such, it is important to be sensitive to the history of women’s rugby and not to produce policy that may vilify the very players that rugby has always attracted and accepted. Whilst male to female trans athletes may have a significant advantage in both physique and physiology it is not likely to be outside the total range of all women players. I would encourage World Rugby to commission some research that considered the upper quartile of women players in terms of physique over the last 30 years (though unfortunately I doubt this data would be available) and then compare this to male to female trans players. My intuition (from experience) is that male to female trans athletes would not be outside these limits even though they may be at the top of these limits. As such, an argument based on excluding trans athletes on grounds of size and player safety seems wholly unreasonable and unsupported by evidence, other than anecdote. Players are injured by other players for a variety of reasons: poor tackling technique, poor body management, poor officiating, poor luck and illegal aggressive behaviour (I have a list of personal injuries from all of these). Considering the prejudice that trans athletes face in their wider lives, to give the impression that they are some kind of ‘monster’ who is likely to leave a pitch full of broken players behind them, just plays into the prejudice they already face.

Any policy change needs to consider the effect that it would have on current and future female-born players and current and future male-born players who have transitioned to female. From my perspective, the primary factors needed to be considered are the history of women’s rugby, its inclusivity and the type of players that it has always attracted, and to ensure that World Rugby does not seek to maintain or promote the narrative around trans-athletes being abhorrent and unwelcome in sport. Whilst the safety of players should be a key consideration, and rugby is a fairly high risk sport due to its contact element, it is far better to ensure that there is appropriate medical support (something that many clubs still do not have) and to ensure that all players receive quality coaching. My view is that this is where there needs to be significant investment in the women’s game. Not to vilify trans athletes who are likely to have suffered significant prejudice in their wider lives.

I realise that emotions run high in this area, primarily because women’s sport has always faced a tough struggle to be accepted and funded. I recognise the fears that some women have who may feel threatened at what they see as the prospect of ‘cheating men entering and ruining our sport’. And I do share concerns about the numbers of children and young adults who show signs of body dysmorphia and who wish to change sex as a result. Not withstanding this, I think that a much more pragmatic and sensitive approach can be taken in respect to rugby. Policy should ensure that individuals cannot ‘game the system’ in being able to identify as one sex on one day and another sex on another day. As such, it seems reasonable to specify a period of time that an individual must have lived their life as their non birth-assigned sex before they are allowed to participate in rugby. However, any policy that seeks to use testosterone or body mass or any other sex marker to prevent individuals participating in rugby is not reasonable and justified. Rugby should remain as inclusive as possible at the same time as it accepts and mitigates the risk as a contact sport.

I hope you are able to present this to the panel. As I said, I would have like to have been able to participate in person but recognise that other appointments and invitations have been made. Please do contact me if you have any questions or require more detail.



Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!


Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions

I’m just in the process of going through the proofs of my new book which should be out in the next few months. Each chapter is based on a question in the philosophy of sport and contains sub-questions and independent study questions, plus there are chapters of questions addressed to some key figures in the area. So lots of questions… and a few answers! The book is published by Bloomsbury and should be out in late Spring.

Here’s the chapter list:


  1. What is the philosophy of sport?

Interview with Warren Fraleigh

Defining sport

  1. What is sport?
  2. Can cheaters ever win?

Interview with Jim Parry

Sport, knowledge and truth

  1. Are there different types of sporting knowledge?
  2. How can philosophy underpin research in sport?
  3. Is the referee always right?
  4. How much is too much technology in sport?

Interview with R. Scott Kretchmar

Interview with Mike McNamee

Sport, body and mind

  1. Is the body just another sporting tool?
  2. Is sporting success ‘mind over matter’?
  3. Is it right to separate sport according to sex?
  4. Does sport discriminate against transsexual and transgender athletes?
  5. Is elite disability sport an oxymoron?

Interview with Pam Sailors

Interview with Takayuki Hata

Sport and the good life

  1. What is the value of sport?
  2. Is utopia a world full of games?
  3. What is the value of dangerous sport?
  4. Are Olympic values worth aspiring to?

Interview with Randolf Feezell

Interview with Heather Reid

Sport, art and aesthetics

  1. Is sport art?
  2. Does beauty matter in sport?
  3. Is it better to be a purist or partisan when watching sport?

Interview with Stephen Mumford

Interview with Graham McFee

Ethical questions in sport

  1. What is fair play in sport?
  2. Is sport a moral educator?
  3. Is competition morally acceptable?
  4. Is gamesmanship just another skill in sport?
  5. What is wrong with doping in sport?
  6. Do elite athletes deserve hero status?
  7. Is it wrong to be patriotic in sport?
  8. Can you respect someone you’re trying to beat?
  9. Can violent sports be ethical?
  10. Should sport be used as a political tool?
  11. Does commercialism ruin sport?

Interview with Sigmund Loland

Interview with Angela Schneider


Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.



Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.

‘It’s just not cricket’ – Oh, yes it is!

Yesterday England lost the one-day series to Sri Lanka. England however, felt a degree of aggrievement after a controversial dismissal during the deciding game where batsman Jos Butler was run out at the non-striking end after he backed too far up the wicket. For those of you who don’t know too much about cricket, when the ball is in play (and this includes the bowler’s run up) the batsmen must stay within the crease otherwise they risk being stumped out. This goes for the non-striking batsman as well as the one the bowler is bowling to. However, in order to maximize chances of a quick single run, the non-striking batsman will often start to walk up the wicket to reduce the distance he has got to go to the other end. Yet, if this batsman stray beyond his crease the bowler is perfectly at liberty to knock the bails off the stumps and declare him out. And this is what happened yesterday.

England may well declare that it is not in the spirit of the game for the bowler to stop short of bowling and knock the bails off at his end, but arguably the Sri Lankan bowler, Sachitra Senanayake, was perfectly right to do so. It is within the rules of the game and the rule is there to prevent the non-striking bowler practically being at the other end of the wicket before the ball has even left the bowler’s hand. The rule is there to essentially keep the batsmen honest. And the fact that Jos Butler had been made aware that he was straying too far outside of his crease at least twice during the match shows that Sri Lanka were abiding by the spirit of the game. It is Jos Butler’s fault for not taking heed of these friendly warnings.

England are wrong to complain that Sri Lanka were not playing by the spirit of the game and it smacks of hypocrisy and sour grapes. Arguably, it was Jos Butler that was guilty of bending the spirit of the game, not the Sri Lankans.

Jos Butler Run Out

#BeAGameChanger – Pushing women’s sport forward

Last night I attended an event organised and hosted by the Women’s Sport Trust. In the room were an invited audience of 350 women and men who have an interest in women’s sport, encompassing figures such as broadcaster Clare Balding, coach Judy Murray (who both made incredibly impassioned off-the-cuff speeches) as well a wealth of Olympic and Paralympic medallists and international and ex-international athletes. This was in addition to business leaders and journalists – all who want to raise the profile of women in sport (you might justly ask why I was there!).

The evening was positive and inspirational and centred around a Q & A session with four current England captains (Katy Mclean – rugby, Steph Houghton – football, Charlotte Edwards – cricket, Pamela Cookey – netball) led by broadcaster Alice Arnold and followed by comments by a range of other leading figures. And looking at the buzz it created, it met its goal easily – with the #BeAGameChanger hashtag trending on Twitter.

Things aren’t great for women in sport from the school playing field upwards but they are better than they were even five years ago and what the Women’s Sport Trust showed was that there is a continuing impetus for change. They are doing exactly the right thing in trying to get the all important business leaders and journalists on board. When women’s sport is regularly covered and reported in the media and money is invested by the corporate world, society will be affected and culture will change. Young girls will no longer feel it is socially unacceptable to kick a ball around with their friends in the park or relish the thought of competing for victory. It is this culture that really needs to change and that will only happen if the wider media start reporting women’s sport as being as normal as men’s sport. There is a long, long way to go on this but the wheels do seem to be gradually moving.

There does seem to be a new feminist movement at the moment, whether from women in science and technology, women in philosophy, women in politics or women in sport. But equally and sadly there does seem to also be a reaction to this empowerment as can be seen in the worrying popularity of the misogynistic online PUA (pick-up artist) doctrine which has been linked to the recent shooting in California by Elliot Rodger, and the horrific abuse and trolling women have received on social media. Yet perhaps the fact that these voices are being increasingly marginalised indicates that culture is continuing to change; that wider society does (reluctantly in some cases) realise it needs to do more to provide opportunities for women to develop and showcase their talents. Events such as the one organised last night are signs that many see the status quo as not good enough and are willing to do their bit to keep pushing forward.

On a personal note, I have always been reluctant to get actively involved in women’s issues because I have been reluctant to define myself as a woman. I have always wanted to be defined by what I do and as such I sometime bury my head in the sand about the barriers women face. Last night reinforced to me however, that until the day where women are on a par with men at all levels of society I have a duty to do what I can to push women and girls forward and influence others to give them opportunities to be the best they can in every sphere of life. So all credit to the Women’s Sport Trust for organising #BeAGameChanger and even more credit to them for getting a sceptic like me to leave with my head buzzing with ideas and a renewed passion in my heart.

If you want to find out more about what you can do to help the Women’s Sport Trust then go here:

Two Cycling Films Added to the Sports Film List

I’ve just updated the philosophical sports film list that I’ve compiled to include the recently released The Armstrong Lie and the forthcoming Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. The former I’ve seen, the latter I haven’t.

The Armstrong Lie is a slightly disjointed film that jumps back and forth between Armstrong’s hey-day, his complete fall from grace and his early attempts to regain control over his destroyed reputation. The disjointed nature can be explained by the fact that the director (Alex Gibney) set out to make one film – about Lance’s comeback from cancer in 2009 – and ended up recording Lance’s downfall. Unfortunately, though it provides some interesting insights and interviews with some of Lance’s (former) friends and colleagues, its lack of coherence detracts from what is a fascinating story.

…and the most interesting philosophical question – that the film doesn’t address – is who actually won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005?

The list of philosophical films can be found here: Sports films relating to philosophical issues

A Philosophical Account of ‘Summer Storm’

This year, as part of my module called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ I gave my students the option of writing a philosophical analysis of a sports film. Below is one of the best ones, written by Jehmeil Lemonius (and is reproduced here with his permission).

A Philosophical Account of Summer Storm: Masculinity, Identity and Coming out in Sport.

Traditionally, participation in sport has been viewed as the epitome of masculinity.  Research has suggested that, in western societies throughout the twentieth century, sport has become a proverbial litmus test for what it is to be perceived as ‘manly’ (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1992), creating an institution where hegemonic masculinity, heterosexism, and homophobia continue to fester (Anderson, 2002; Connell, 1995; Hekma, 1998). As a result of the apparent hostility to behaviour not usually associated with masculinity, openly gay people continue to be hugely under-represented in sport, and those hiding their sexuality are subject to a range of pressures to conform which have otherwise been brought close to extinction elsewhere in society. As a result of the uniquely challenging experiences of gay people participating in sport, a minority of films have aimed to address the issue head on; ‘Summer Storm’, a coming-of-age movie and the subject of this essay, is an example. This essay will seek to examine the film’s portrayal of sexual orientation and sport in the context of wider academic literature.

Summer Storm (Sommersturm), a German movie released in 2004 and directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, is a comedy-drama which follows Tobi, a confident, popular teenager who is the captain and social leader of the RSC rowing team, set to the backdrop of a yearly rowing regatta. Tobi and his best friend, Achim, are team-mates, and share a close relationship, at times bordering on physical intimacy, but always falling short of direct sexual contact. Whilst Tobi harbours strong feelings toward his best friend, Achim’s affection lies elsewhere with Sandra, a fellow rower and participant in the competition, and Tobi himself is the subject of advances from Anke, the attractive female friend of Sandra.

The story unfolds at the summer rowing camp, where teams from all across Germany descend on the ground for a week of training in the lead up to the final rowing race. Behaving stereotypically, the male team are excited at the prospect of camping with a female rowing team from Berlin. However, the girls’ team cancels, and are replaced by “Queerstrokes”, an all-gay youth rowing team who take vocal pride in their homosexuality. As hostility and competitiveness between the two groups becomes fierce, Tobi is forced to confront his feelings for Achim, come to terms with a blossoming relationship with Leo, a member of Queerstokes, and declare his sexuality to his team-mates.

Superficially, ‘Summer Storm’ follows a generic ‘coming out’ story narrative, structured around successive periods of tension, crisis and resolution. The predictability of such storylines are reflected in commentary; Gove (1996) argues that films dealing with teenage representations and ‘coming out’ narratives almost universally deal with gender stereotypes, given the symbolic value of adolescence as a key moment in the development of a person’s gender and sexual identity. The genre of films dealing with revelations of sexual orientation during adolescence are, by their very nature, concerned with positive representations of gay people – Bronski (2000) goes so far as to argue that such films are ‘inseparable from the idea of pro-gay propaganda’ (P.20). Homophobia is portrayed exclusively as backward and unacceptable in the film, with Anke even commenting, on hearing Achim express his need to be ‘informed’ of a rower’s sexual orientation, ‘Why don’t we just ask them to sew a pink triangle into their jackets?’ (25:28).

Bronski also views the experience of protagonists in such films as unrealistically positive, with the story failing to reflect the harshness of homophobia in the real world, and ending conveniently after the triumphant declaration of the characters’ sexual orientation without any exploration of its possible consequences (Bronki, 2000). This opinion is reflected in much critical commentary on Summer Storm, with many criticising its unoriginality, predictability, and over-emphasis on wish-fulfilment rather than reality.

However, in many such films, gay teenagers are represented as unpopular, sidelined, and lacking in confidence – their emotional journey leads them on a journey of discovery and eventual belonging to a gay subculture. Summer Storm not only portrays its central character as a popular, masculine, and confident with women, but it does this in the context of sport, a rare backdrop for the genre, and one which provides a variety of challenges for Tobi to overcome. Sport has, in the past, been seen as the bastion of traditional masculinity; Davis & Weaving (2010) suggest that the sporting environment facilitates the reproduction of masculine character qualities which are embroiled within a patriarchal society. These qualities consist of behaviours that are stereotypically associated with alpha males such as aggression, competitiveness, and suppression of emotion. With these attributes being closely associated with success, this discourages participation from those who do not identify with such qualities, reaffirming an environment which can be considered segregated, homophobic, and sexist, and glorifying masculinity through a thinly disguised misogyny (Anderson, 2008).

Such behaviour is portrayed in the movie, when many of Tobi’s teammates talk openly and explicitly about their intentions to seduce female participants at the regatta, and the initial reaction, on Queerstokes members revealing their sexuality, is one of repulsion and hostility. If gay people do participate, Price (2003) argues that they resort to extensive measures to present an image of “normality”, conforming to traditional heterosexist structures and endure discriminatory practices to maintain acceptance in this setting.  With Tobi’s adoption of a role as the class clown and alpha male, and his efforts to maintain a heterosexual relationship with Anke and avoid socialising with Queerstokes, the viewer is confronted with the intense pressure to conform as a player of a team sport. The matter of conforming is also the subject of some conflict within the Queerstokes team, with one character commenting that his team-mate should exercise more control over his propensity to ‘behave like a girl’ (40:05).

Georg, a member of the RSC rowing team, represents Anderson’s (2008) classic archetype of traditional masculinity – he is openly hostile toward the Queerstokes team on account of their homosexuality, objectifies women, and engages in traditionally masculine banter with fellow teammates. Georg engages in an open conflict with Queerstokes’ own captain, Malte, who pursues Georg sexually in response. However, rather than portray the relationship as a one-way educational experience for Georg, the film shows Malte as a direct reflection of him – his overtly sexual, humorous, sporty, and domineering personality illustrates all the hallmarks of the same hegemonic masculinity adopted by Georg. The film is therefore unafraid to portray the alpha-male equivalents in both the heterosexual and homosexual groups, and the resulting relationship between them, culminating in Georg feeling horrified by Malte’s eventual sexual advance, is amongst the most interesting in the film. At this point, the only thing separating the two characters is the gender of their sexual targets – stereotypes about sexuality have been broken down entirely.

One of the film’s major dramatic plotlines comes from the central friendship between Tobi and Achim. Many such films contain a similar relationship, some of which serve to portray the heartbreak of unrequited love, with others providing the plot device through which the protagonists romantic dreams are fulfilled. Summer Storm represents this differently – whilst Tobi’s sexuality is not openly acknowledged, the two share explicitly intimate moments, and Achim is on some level aware of Tobi’s proclivities. The storyline eventually climaxes as Tobi leans in for a kiss, but is spurned by Achim who, tellingly, responds with ‘You expect too much of me’ (45:00). The viewer is efficiently made aware that, whilst potentially experimental, Achim is heterosexual, and is unable to fully reciprocate Tobi’s feelings. The film demonstrates restraint in refusing to portray the advance as a shock to Achim, and, whilst the friendship begins to break down in the final act, this can be attributed to Tobi’s jealousy of his friend’s relationship with Sandra, rather than any genuine homophobia on Achim’s part. Such a representation – placing the emphasis on the protagonist as the engineer of his own problems in the face of a relatively accepting response – is an original take on a common story arc, and presents the idea that gay people can experience the same inner turmoil even in the absence of strong intolerance. This is shown most effectively in Anke’s barbed response to Tobi’s continued efforts to hide his sexuality, after Tobi had confided in her his secret: “I have to accept that you are in love with a boy – I cannot compete with that. But do you want to make a comical act out of yourself? Do you want to continue lying to the others?” (1:04:45).

Having been spurned by Achim, Tobi joins the Queerstokes team for an afternoon by the lake. In this scene, the audience witnesses a traditional moment of belonging and realisation – the character feels kindred to those around him for the first time. He develops a relationship with Leo, and shares his first gay kiss. With an employment of pathetic fallacy, against the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm, tensions result in Leo confronting Tobi about his homosexuality in front of his fellow team-mates. Back at the camp, as the storm threatens to destroy their tents, a tree is uprooted, crashing to the ground and separating Tobi from the rest of the camp – Tobi looks at his team-mates through the rain, the imagery reflecting his feelings of isolation and loneliness.  The group eventually find shelter in a local hostel, where Tobi argues with Achim, and ends up in the arms of Leo.

The next morning, Tobi arrives in the breakfast lobby to be greeted by two tables – one occupied by his RSC team-mates, and the second by Queerstokes. After a moment of hesitation, and with the audience expecting him to choose the group who reflect his new-found homosexual identity, the film surprises when Tobi sits with his original circle of friends. At the table, Tobi kisses Anke on the cheek, and asks, casually, ‘What, I can’t kiss girls now, just because I’m gay?’ (1:22:40). His team-mates react with bemusement, but give a wary smile of acceptance, before Toby returns to his leadership role by giving a motivational speech to his team. The scene is in keeping with Summer Storm’s alternative take in choosing to represent sexuality as incidental to personality, and, suddenly, Tobi’s ‘act’ appears real. This challenges the viewer’s own stereotypes that his role as alpha-male had to be a pretence due to his homosexuality – Tobi is able to be both gay and traditionally masculine. As the film ends, Tobi and Achim reconcile, and in a final nod to acceptance and diversity, a last-minute injury results in the gay and straight teams mixing for the regatta race.

Although Tobi’s experience of acceptance has been the subject of much criticism by reviewers, many of whom have declared it unrealistic, the storyline’s realism is actually supported in recent academic research. Studies have attributed homophobia in sport to the lack of experience of, or knowledge of, openly gay male athletes (Wolf Wendel, Toma, & Morphew , 2001), implying that the introduction of even a single gay athlete could produce a significant reduction in homophobic attitudes. Anderson (2009), historically a major advocate of sport being inherently hostile to homosexuality, has noted a significant and recent change in attitudes to gay people within sport. He now refers to many sports as being ‘inclusive’, and considers the hegemonic form of conservative masculinity to have lost its dominance. This assertion has led to Anderson developing newer theories on an ‘inclusive masculinity’ – and that numerous masculinities can co-exist without any hierarchical arrangement. The theory supports the existence of multiple masculinities, and the rejection of homophobia, compulsory heterosexism, stoicism and sexism (Cashmore & Cleland, 2012). Further, Clayton and Harris (2009) state that males who now engage in behaviour which, in the past, would have been deemed to be homosexual, do not face any threat to their heterosexuality. This build up in new evidence goes some way to suggesting that attitudes across sport and wider society may be changing.

In this vein, criticism of Summer Storm’s representation of a gay teenager’s coming out in a sporting environment may be unfair – in some ways, despite following a predictable broader path, the film presented an entirely original philosophy of homosexuality in sport. The concept that traditional masculinity is present in both the homosexual and heterosexual male communities, for better or worse, suggests that far more unites male sport participants than divides them. Indeed, Tobi’s internal melodrama, which continued to exist despite no genuine hostility from his best friend, his girlfriend, or his team-mates, presented the idea that the process of coming to terms with homosexuality can be independent of homophobia – this point is a brave one to raise. Regardless, in choosing to address the issue of sexuality in male sport, Summer Storm is a member of a very small club, and one which should grow if the stereotypes and clichés associated with gay teenagers, in part propagated by coming out films themselves, are to be challenged and abandoned.



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