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As the National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport of Olympic-style shooting in the United States, USA Shooting (USAS) welcomes the dialogue created by the recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Mark Yost titled: Taking Aim at an Old Debate: Can female athletes compete against men? In shooting, yes – but not in the Olympics. In this article, Yost points out several interesting facts and observations about our sport. This dialogue allows us to engage the shooting community, expand our thinking and establish pathways for bettering our sport for the future.
You will get little argument from many of today’s top shooters, both male and female, as to the shooting abilities of women throughout USA Shooting’s ranks. The success of the collegiate programs like TCU and many intercollegiate programs in the U.S. only echo these beliefs as do some of the sport’s elite shooters like Kim Rhode, a four-time Olympic medalist in trap and skeet shooting, or Katy Emmons, a three-time Olympic medalist from the Czech Republic who is married to the USA’s most successful rifle shooter, Matt Emmons.
“I am a born competitor and whether it is men or women I want to win,” said Jamie Gray, a 2008 Olympian in Rifle. “In a sport that is equal between men and women I would most definitely enjoy the competition. I started out only knowing that men and women compete against each other. It wasn’t until I learned shooting was an Olympic sport that I realized men and women didn’t compete against each other. It is exciting to me that there are still sports out there that men and women can be equal, however for other reasons it may be better that there are different categories for each.”
From 1968 through the 1980 Olympic Games, Olympic shooting events were mixed, with opportunities for women and men to participate regardless of gender. At the 1980 Games in Moscow, there were six shooting events contested. At the upcoming Games in London, there will be 15 events contested. Opportunities for women to compete in Olympic shooting have not shrunk with the dissolution of “mixed” events, but rather have grown as a result not only in our brand of shooting but across all platforms of the shooting sports.
Research by the National Sporting Goods Association shows female participation in target shooting grew by 46.5% between 2001 and 2010. And an October 2011 Gallup Poll found 23 percent of women own a gun. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, from 2001 to 2010, female participation in hunting grew by almost 37 percent.
In Olympic competition, 14 women got the opportunity to compete in shooting at the 1980 and 1976 Olympic Games combined. Since that time, the numbers have risen from 77 in 1984 to 145 female competitors at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Recent history also suggests that woman can perform alongside men in shooting competitions. At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, female competitor Shan Zhang of China became the Olympic gold medalist that year in mixed-event skeet competition. Over two days of competition she produced a score of 373 out of 375, a new Olympic and world record. She also became the first woman to topple the men in the history of the Olympic Games’ shooting competition. Since that time, no mixed events have been held in an Olympic shooting competition.
“As a proud American female citizen, participating in a sport where gender-specific characteristics are not advantageous, I would overwhelmingly favor a chance to compete in a mixed event – or at least a women’s event with an equal number of targets as the men,” said Kelsey Zauhar, a USA Shooting National Team member in Shotgun. “But my personal opinion is in a sea of thousands of competitors, and I am not going to be seen as more right or more correct than anyone else just because I speak louder with words. I will let my performance speak volumes and hopefully it will inspire some little girl sitting in her living room, three feet from the television with visions of Olympic glory flashing through her eyes. And hopefully she’ll pull at her father’s shirt tail asking him to take her to the shooting range where she can join the other females already participating.”
In large part, equality for woman at the elite level often comes down to participation numbers where men still far exceed women in the sport. Effort to get more women shooting is a collaborative effort for all within the firearms industry. This June, all over the country, young girls will head out to go shoot something. They will be attending the inaugural National Take Your Daughters To The Range Dayon June 9. This event will be an opportunity for gun ranges throughout the nation to introduce many young women to a sport that may just become a life-long hobby, or even a profession.
“Boys learn to shoot in Scouts or with their Dads,” National Take Your Daughters to The Range Day co-founder and firearms instructor, Lynne Finch, said. “Often, the girls are left behind because shooting isn’t ‘girly.’ Well, we can, and do shoot, and well. Learning to shoot gives young women confidence, helps to build self-esteem, and introduces them to a sport they can participate in their whole lives.”
“I think that anytime you have competition where size or strength is not a factor, females can absolutely compete with the males,” said USA Shooting National Team Pistol shooter and USAS Board member Sandra Uptagrafft. “The fundamentals of executing a good shot work the same regardless of gender, size or age. The question of why females no longer compete with males or why we have differing number of shots in the same events comes up often when I explain our sport to new people. It does seem sexist, but the fact that we have separate events from males in the Olympics actually is a good thing since more females can compete this way. There can only be so many people on the shooting line at one time. Since I am not tall enough, fast enough or strong enough to compete in most other Olympic sports, I personally am just happy to have a sport like shooting in which I can excel.”
“We now have marketing specifically to attract our demographic and manufacturers are more sensitive to our needs,” Uptagrafft added. “I am particularly happy about this since I can now find weapons, clothing, gear and other accessories made for someone my size.”
For competitive shooters, the debate isn’t centered on whether men and women should be competing on a level playing field however. The changes made to the Olympic program allow more women to compete internationally and likely encourage greater participation among all females at the elite levels of competitive shooting. Getting even more women involved both competitively and within the leadership ranks of the major shooting sports organizations domestically and internationally is the next step. In addition, so to is looking at the match disparities between the two and trying to move toward greater equality in that sense.
“I would love to shoot against the men for all of these reasons,” said Amy Sowash, a USA Shooting National Team member in Rifle. “I think it’s a chance for women to shine in a world often dominated by men. Not only are there sport stereotypes to overcome, but also gun stereotypes. Many people think men are better at shooting just because hunting and military careers are dominated by them. In building role models for young women, I think it’s important to highlight skill sets that are not only good, but world-class. This is a chance for women to be seen in a completely different light where they are not valued based on appearance. In other women’s Olympic sports the focus often drifts to the most attractive players and teams. Men are praised for their skills, women for their looks. Any opportunity for a woman to be judged based on her abilities is positive.”
Mothers, daughters and sisters have more opportunity to experience the shooting sports than ever before given the growth and interest of firearm ownership worldwide. With growth comes greater debate and awareness along with intensifying advocacy. Those ingredients have always provided the foundation for the enhancement of our sport.
To learn more about USA Shooting, click here. To learn more about National Take Your Daughter to the Range Day, click here. The National Rifle Association (NRA) sponsors a variety of programs to get women actively involved in shooting.