A young Abigail Hoffman (second from left, front row) masquerades as a boy to play in the Toronto Hockey League.​ Courtesy York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC00898.

This year, Abby Hoffman, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for her inspiring fight and advocacy for equitable sport policy, joined graduates from University College in Convocation Hall during their graduation ceremony. Hoffman had the opportunity to address the graduating class to pass on words of wisdom.

“Anything worth accomplishing will more than likely require considerable amounts of determination, commitment, and energy, some of it under daunting pressure,” Hoffman described.

Hoffman was the first woman elected to the Executive Board of the Canadian Olympic Committee, a member of the International Association of Athletic Federations — the international governing body for track and field — as well as serving as the Director General of Sport Canada for 10 years. Her athletic achievements compile an impressive résumé, including competing in track and field at four Olympic games, two 800-meter final appearances, four medals at the Pan American Games, a Commonwealth Games title, and a nomination as a flag bearer for the Canadian Olympic Team at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Hoffman has always been the kind of person to challenge social norms. In her childhood she would masquerade as a boy to play in a boys-only ice hockey league, or during her time at U of T, sneak into Hart House when access to the building was still offered to men only. Her current role as the Assistant Deputy Minister of Strategic Policy at Health Canada gives her a place to help level the playing field for women in sport while advocating for, and giving greater opportunities to, larger communities.

One such policy that has recently become a source of contention between athletes and sport governing bodies is gender validation. For example, in August 2009, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old runner, won the 800-metre world championships in a time of 1:55.45 — two and a half seconds faster then the second place competitor. Not three hours later, Caster found herself at the center of a public contestation over whether or not she was really a woman. The world record for 800-metres was set by Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvila in 1983 at 1:53.28, who was also subject to chromosomal sex testing on the grounds of her strongly muscled shoulders, arms, and thighs.

We must remember that anyone we may accuse of being the opposite sex will naturally be subjected to extreme humiliation — unfortunately the conversation usually boils down to athletes having to reassure the public that they are the gender they say they are.

Like Hoffman, there are some athletes who are making progressive strides in eliminating sport-societal and sport-gender norms. Eri Yoshida, a 16-year-old knuckleball pitcher, was the first woman to be signed to a professional baseball team in Japan. Julie Krone became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race in 1993. Babe Didriksen Zaharias was the first woman to qualify and play in a men’s PGA Tour event in 1938, while Michelle Wie most recently played eight PGA tour events between 2004-2008.

Not to mention the 45 per cent of all competitors are expected to be women at the 2015 Pan Am games this year in Toronto. Debut women’s sports will feature baseball, C-1 canoe, and rugby sevens. The first FIFA women’s world cup took place in 1991 — 61 years after the first FIFA mena world cup — and hosted 12 teams. This year, Canada lost in the quarterfinals of a tournament hosting 24 countries.

Finally, it can be said that the world is becoming an increasingly more welcoming place for women in sports. Although we’ve made progress, thanks the courage of individuals like Hoffman, who dared to challenge the status quo, we still have room for improvement. Hoffman stressed that the passive acceptance of the status quo is not the right approach to life, “Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”

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