As the USA and people all throughout the world react to the new Texas law that legislates control over women’s bodies and limit reproductive autonomy and freedom, it is important to talk about how this debate over human rights has been waging in a different battleground, sports.
Now before we get into it, it is important to acknowledge that the author is a white, cisgender male with privilege who is less qualified to speak about this matter than the individuals who are directly affected by these issues. With that said, the author hopes that his perspective will contribute positively to the discussion in arguing for these basic human rights that must be protected and equally accessible to everybody.
In the past, we have covered a lot on the topics of both transgender and intersex athletes, most notably the attempts by governments and sports organizations to restrict individuals of these identities from participating. The debate has always been the same “to protect women’s sports” or to “ensure fairness for cis-gender women” (although that one uses less than appropriate phrasing). Sadly, these arguments have been successful on some level to restrict just who and what is considered “eligible” to compete in women’s sports on the principle of “fairness”, but the Tokyo Olympics have enlightened us that there’s much more to it than that.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard the name “Caster Semenya” who is a runner from South Africa and considered the world’s fastest woman in the 800m. So fast in fact, that she has regularly been accused of being a man and even required to undergo an unethical “gender verification” exam to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) who confirmed, at least anatomically, that she is a female. However, as Semenya’s performance improved, so did the criticisms. Semenya has a condition called “Hyperandrogenism” in which her body naturally produces more testosterone than the average, cisgender white woman. The thing about that condition, at least for Semenya, is that while her body produces the testosterone, it is incompatible with the receptors her body uses to absorb the testosterone, so all its doing is floating around in her blood stream until it gets recycled. Despite this, critics of Semenya have used her superior athletic skills to criticize her femininity and accuse her of cheating. To the extent that the World Athletics (IAAF) governing body adopted a specific rule, informally dubbed the “Semenya Rule” barring female athletes from competing if they have a blood testosterone level above 5 nmol/L in the 400m to 1mile running events (Semenya’s primary events). If athletes test over 5 nmol/L they are required to take medication to artificially reduce the testosterone in their blood, regardless of if it’s produced naturally. Unfortunately, several athletes have since been blocked from competing by this rule.
Several athletes, including Semenya have been affected by this rule. Most notably, the athletes are primarily African with dark skin color, given that the IAAF’s “statistics” used in the generation of their rules are based on primarily Caucasian athletes. Thus, IAAF is attempting to define “woman” as someone who has a blood testosterone level below 5 nmol/L. The IAAF likes to claim that their reasoning is based on the “normal female range” that is the statistical average of the female population. So they are making assumptions based on the normal population without acknowledging that all Olympic athletes, male or female, are not “normal” in the population. Olympians are statistical outliers, whose combination of genetic differences, mental resilience, histories and training have established them well outside the “normal” population. The Olympics celebrate the best of the best, so there is no “normal” in this aspect. It is well established that Michael Phelps is not a “normal” male, for many number of reasons and Caster Semenya is no “normal” female either, so holding her to that standard is misguided at best and outright discriminatory.
However, this issue isn’t just solely limited to track and field but is already being seen where cisgender female athletes who are good are starting to find their performance regulated and governed to prevent them from being too good. Most notably at the Tokyo Summer Olympics with Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast in the world, is performing at levels well above her competitors but not being scored in the proper way that reflects that. Long story short, part of Biles’ list of routines she planned to compete in Tokyo with included two routines which had the highest difficult scores of the entire competition. To the extent that the moves she was planning to do were moves that even only a small number of male gymnasts could ever do safely. However, the International Gymnastics Federation chose to reduce Biles’ difficulty scores to be closer to her competitors, but without any kind of sufficient explanation. They limited what she could achieve simply because she is a much stronger athlete than anybody else.
The history of women’s sports is filled with these kinds of ways to limit and regulate what female athletes can do. Modern sports as we know it emerged from the first Olympic Games in 1896 and most international sport has developed around that. The Olympics, since the beginning has been organized and led by white men, who’ve been responsible for imposing the rules and standards for athletic competition since then. When women were first allowed to officially compete in the Olympics in 1900, they were limited to individual sports that were considered more “feminine” primarily golf, tennis, and croquet. At each successive Olympics, more sports were added including archery, figure skating, fencing, tennis, swimming, and diving. It wasn’t until the 1928 Olympics that women were permitted to compete in running events, which unfortunately led to a setback. During the Women’s 800m, as we would now expect given athletes competing at 100% effort at the Olympics, the runners who finished the race were exhausted, breathing heavily and what not. This was interpreted as women somehow being “incapable of running such a distance” and fears of their uterus falling out and other weird shit. In fact, all strenuous exercise was considered as dangerous for women and could potentially harm their “reproductive functions” according to the medical “experts” for their time. Thus, women were banned from such events for decades thereafter. Women weren’t permitted to compete in more “masculine” up to as recently as 2012 in boxing and even by 2016 certain events were “men’s only” such as the 1500m freestyle in swimming.
Babe Didrikson one of the greatest female athletes, if not greatest athletes of all time, excelled golf, basketball, baseball and track and field in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s where she won two Olympic gold medals and 10 LPGA major championships. Didrikson competed during a time in the 20th century where women were only destined for motherhood and housewifery. Simply through competing, she challenged society’s notion of femininity through her athletic capabilities. This led to a lot of derision for her “manliness” and her accomplishments were often mocked based on this. She was good, too good for some people who couldn’t accept that a woman could be so athletically capable. She left an impression on sports, especially women’s sports, that is still felt today. Yet, the same arguments used to attack her are still being used against female athletes today.
Nobody can argue that Serena Williams is one of the best tennis players in the world with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, and holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles of any athlete. Even with her capabilities, she has been scrutinized by competitors, commentators and armchair critics who’ve criticized everything from her hair styles, being black in a very white sport (with more than a few racist slurs used), wearing skintight playing outfits, playing while pregnant muscle tone and pretty much everything else that seeks to distract from her capabilities as an athlete.
The thing about our society in this era is, that we are trying to define what it means to be “feminine” through everything from media representation, not so subtle cueing, and explicit sexism to say that being a proper woman means being small, dainty, subservient and weak, especially when compared to men who are viewed as, strong, confident, aggressive, and big. Imposing these strict gender roles into our society, to the extent that women who fit within this standard are the ones more likely to find a husband and have children, passing along their genetic traits to the next generation in societal sexual selection built around an arbitrary construct of gender. Despite all the progress made in gender equality, society still expects motherhood and housewifery. So, women who are tall, more muscular, athletic, independent, and confident are looked down upon by society because they don’t fit within these standards. Female athletes aren’t supposed to be as good as Babe Didrikson, Caster Semenya, Simone Biles and Serena Williams, because they are directly challenging what being a “woman” means.
The recent attempts to legislate and ban the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports serve as further attempts to use sports to define and regulate what it means to be a woman. Despite there being zero evidence to the claims, those who oppose trans inclusion continue to make the same arguments, regardless. However, it’s less about keeping trans athletes out of sport as it is strictly imposing what “woman’s sports” should be, notably in keeping the standard of competition to fit the societal definition of a woman should be (and in the case of trans athletes, what a woman should not be). These arguments aren’t based on any kind of scientific fact, but again, simply imposing gender roles and strict definitions of womanhood onto our current generation. Female athletes competing in more “masculine” sports are often derided and generalized as being “mannish” and stereotyped as “lesbian” which has only created a negative feedback loop in which sports has become one of the few outlets for lesbian women to participate in openly, furthering the stereotype. If a female athlete is a strong athlete who wins and doesn’t look “feminine” enough, she is directly accused of being a man, being a lesbian and derided for her well-earned accomplishments. Leading to unfair accusations and shaming from the sports community and potentially subject to unethical gender testing.
For 125 years male athletes have been pushing the boundaries to their athletic capabilities, setting new world records, and developing new techniques and technologies to push the limits. Female athletes, depending on the event, have only had a fraction of that time to push those same limits of athletic capabilities. Yet, even when they do push, they are still held back, sometimes literally.
Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially race in and complete the Boston Marathon in 1967 was literally shoved and physically assaulted to remove her from the racecourse. The overzealous race director felt that women had no place in running the marathon, that women were “too fragile” and “physiologically incapable” of running a marathon, plus the whole uterus thing, so he repeatedly attacked her. Fortunately, she prevailed and finished the race (with everything intact). However, it wasn’t until 1972 where women were “officially” allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon. She still proved that women could complete a full marathon, safely, and do it in a time comparable with other male runners (4hr 20min). Even more so, another female athlete who unofficially raced the Boston marathon in 1966, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb finished in 3hr 21min faster than 2/3 of the other athletes (all men) who were competing.
Even today, women are still limited in competing in primarily “masculine” sports, including ice hockey, American football, and others. While leagues and teams are popping up, the momentum is still quite slow. Advocates and leaders like Dr. Jen Welter are at the frontlines of this effort, making these sports accessible to young girls and women every where to build the next generation of female athletes to push back.
Women have made great strides in pushing their athletic capabilities but doing so in much shorter time than men have and facing much greater resistance. Within the next 50-100 years, it is predicted that the performance margin between men’s and women’s sports will further diminish. Again, this won’t be without resistance as this will directly challenge the societal gender roles and notions of what women “should” be capable of (rather than what they are). However, by holding female athletes to the same standard of capability based on individual skill level rather than archaic gender differences. All of us, as sports leaders, can use sport as a true platform to empower women, both cisgender and transgender, to achieve their full potential and capability in sport and outside of sport. It is up to us to advocate for body autonomy and respect a woman’s right to choose what’s best for her capabilities and her health, both on and off the field.
Photo by Yann Caradec