Caster Semenya is an accomplished middle distance runner from South Africa, but despite her athletic excellence, she has had to fight to compete.
The reason is simple, Semenya defies the primary sorting that we demand of athletes; are you a man, or are you a woman? At 28-years-old, Semenya has been subjected to all of the intrusive and humiliating ways sports officials can attempt to conclude – which are you?
And now the decision is in. Officials from the ruling body IAAF will bar her from some competition, including the Olympics, unless she medically reduces the amount of testosterone in her body. Semenya has a naturally-occurring level of the sex hormone above that of the average woman, and they have informed Semenya she would have to artificially lower the level in order to compete.
As my Marist colleague Leander Schaerlaeckens pointed out in a column he wrote for Yahoo, we don’t penalize Michael Phelps for a wingspan that helped him compete in swimming, and basketball players don’t play on teams according to height. Secretariat’s heart was three times that of a normal horse. The point is, there are biological differences that give one an advantage, or give an athlete a reason to work that much harder.
But when it comes to gender, any advantage that makes you an outlier in the female category can make you subject to scrutiny. This is due to the unspoken ranking we do with men’s and women’s sports, and men’s sports are always considered superior.
If a woman like Semenya has naturally-occurring characteristics that chemically make her more like a male than an average woman, than she is considered too athletically superior to compete with women. This kind of sorting preserves a category of sport for athletes who could not compete with men at the highest level, but there are unintended effects and one is that women’s sports will forever be seen by some as second best.
Sports have done a lot to elevate women, but this rigid categorization does more to emphasize differences between us.
The truth of it is, many of us are completely familiar with co-ed competition. We play together on volleyball courts and softball fields. We play flag football and soccer. As children, we played games together on empty streets or in schoolyards.
I played basketball in college for my intramural women’s AND men’s teams. At no point did I feel like I wasn’t competitive against men. I continued playing in town leagues and pickup games against men and the few women who would also show up to play. For many of the women I competed against in the women’s league, the barriers to playing with men were more social than about ability.
One night at my regular pickup game a second woman walked into the gym when I did and we ended up on the same team. The competition, a five-man team, thought they’d have an easy win against us. My teammate however played Division 1 basketball. She cleaned up most of the rebounds and we won that court all night.
So much for gender expectations.
As a sports writer, I have covered women and heard the arguments that they are less interesting or competitive to watch, but I’ve never experienced that myself. The category of women’s sports has meant that women can play professionally and set a stadium alight with excitement.
It takes a lot more than chemistry for an athlete to get there.
Semenya and some of the women who have faced scrutiny before, have had their careers and even their lives ruined by the process.
They are collateral damage in our own binary way of looking at gender. Heirs to a history of misunderstanding and judgment.
The argument that men would start competing in women’s sports if the categories were less defined ignores how socially stigmatizing that would be for most men.
Perhaps the conversation Semenya sparks will allow us to reexamine the rules that keep her and her sisters from competing as they are.
Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.
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