Sport, Gender, and Race

by | August 21, 2009
filed under Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture

Women pro athletes face challenges being accepted into certain sports seen as “too dangerous”, a great example of this being the current dispute over the disallowing of women’s ski jumping at the 2010 Olympics here in Vancouver. These cases illustrate that a clear ideal of womanhood is working to fundamentally clash with the ideals of professional athleticism.

But the recent controversy surrounding South African runner Caster Semenya brings this conflict to new and disturbing extremes.

In case you haven’t been following the story, Caster Semenya just won the world gold medal in the 800-metre race in Berlin. Due to a drastic improvement over last year she was asked to take a doping test, which she passed. Now, due to her “masculine” appearance, she’s being asked to take a gender test as well.

Apparently the International Association of Athletics Federations believes the best way to ascertain someone’s gender is to have them examined by a team of “experts” including a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and a gender expert.

I’m not going to post pictures. If you google the story you will find page after page with titles like “Caster Semenya Pictures! Is He a She? You be the Judge!” There are also sites encouraging you to bet on the result of the gender test. It feels like the media thinks we’re all at a circus waiting to see the bearded lady. It feels like it’s not just those 5 doctors that’ll be examining her; it’s the whole world. It feels wrong.

There are so many issues here and the potential result of the test is least relevant.

First, the violation of privacy and dignity is alarming. As HuffPo contributor Marcia DeSantis argues, “To hold a press conference on doping is one thing. To subject an eighteen year old to a public embarrassment on the intimate details of her biology are another.” Apparently Semenya initially wanted to turn down the medal in order to avoid having to finish submitting to the indigity of tests that will let “experts” determine for her and her family what gender they think she is.

I’m sure we can imagine how much pain a situation like this could cause someone. Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan lost her silver medal in the 800 metre race at the 2006 Asian Games after she failed a gender varification test and refused to submit to further testing. The humiliation later caused her to commit suicide. Psychology professor Malcolm Collins stated in an interview: “You can destroy someone’s life like this.” To grow up believing you are one sex, only to discover you are another, would be “terrifying”, he added. “But none of these tests is foolproof, not one of them, and you can cause a lot of damage to the athlete.”

Oh, and headlines like “She? He? It?” and the Globe and Mail’s “Strong Enough for a Man, but Built Like a Woman?” aren’t helping.

But bigger ethical issues about gender and race in sport are raised in this situation. The controversy is highlighting glaring problems with international sport and how our society deals with gender and race.

First, as some Semenya advocates are arguing, the ideal of womanhood the IAAF is looking for is clearly based on a white ideal of femininity that sees a woman as small, fine-featured, having large breasts and hips, and weaker than a man. Preparing for the 1960 Olympics, US women’s track coach Ed Temple declared he wanted a team of “foxes, not oxes.” And that attitude is clearly persisting today as many women professional athletes report feeling pressured to act and look feminine outside of sport in order to compensate for their “masculine” strength. It’s also tied in with a heterosexist assumption that muscular women are lesbians, or even genetically defective. Semenya’s case is an extreme example of this disturbing trend.

Second, who gets to decide what gender someone is? Semenya’s family and neighbours have testified that she was born and raised a girl. As the Dave Zirin & Sherry Wolf wrote in the Nation, “What these officials still don’t understand, or will not confront, is that gender–that is, how we comport and conceive of ourselves–is a remarkably fluid social construction. Even our physical sex is far more ambiguous and fluid than is often imagined or taught.” Zirin & Wolf call attention to the 1 out of every 1,666 US babies born intersexed (having a chromosomal or anatomical gender variation) as an example.

It’s time we recognized that gender and race are cultural constructions and stopped seeing any break from gender norms as a defect. We need to stop having doctors and “experts” boxing people into one gender or another. We need to stop asking women athletes to fit into the white, feminine mould, and humiliating them when they don’t.


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  • Becca

    This is an excellent article- THANK YOU. I think most of us forget that there are real people with real lives/ feelings/ communities/ pressures… behind these stories.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks, Becca! Glad you liked it!

  • David Black

    Hi Jarrah,

    A very thought provoking article. In most sports there is a division between men’s and women’s competitions. Men are usually seen to have a physical advantage, and often sports where the perception is that women may have an advantage (some gymnastics events) the men don’t compete.

    The questions that arise from this division; What is Gender? and What makes a man/women? really don’t lend themselves to the absolute division that sport (and society) have constructed. For the individuals caught in between this constructed dichotomy I can only begin to imagine how they feel.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks, David.

    It definitely seems like athletes constantly find themselves in a struggle over shifting perceptions of gender and athleticism. Unfortunately I don’t have any great immediate solutions (although including women’s ski jumping and promoting children’s participation in non-stereotypical sports would be a first step). Probably needs to be part of a larger societal undertaking because if gender dichotomies are persisting in other homes and workplaces, people won’t question why they’re persisting in sport.

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