The end of sex-segregated sports

Does the Caster Semenya controversy expose the impossibility of separating men and women on the playing field?

Topics: Broadsheet, Gender,

“This is not a normal physiological female body. I’ve treated Olympic female athletes in 34 countries, but I’ve never seen a body like that.” So said a doctor who evaluated Jarmila Kratochvilova, a Czech Olympian whose world-record-setting time in the women’s 800-meter race has remained unchallenged since 1983. In his Sunday column, London Times writer Dominic Lawson reminds us that Kratochvilova passed her gender test, despite suspicions surrounding her physiology and speed, in a controversy that bears great resemblance to last week’s still unresolved Caster Semenya scandal.

In his strange but well-meaning piece, Lawson detours through Gender Studies 101 and the story of Shi Pei Pu, the Chinese spy who inspired “M. Butterfly,” to make the argument that it is time we stop sex-segregating sports. “In the spirit of diplomacy and fair play,” he writes, “let this column offer a solution to these embarrassing difficulties which continue to vex the Olympic movement and the IAAF, an action which will cut the Gordian knot of ambiguous sexual identity. Let there be no male or female athletics championships, divided with all the rigidity of South Africa’s former apartheid laws.”

If both sexes compete together, he argues, then there will be no need for gender testing. Women like Semenya and Kratochvilova would be allowed to compete but spared the humiliation of having their sex questioned in an international forum. Plus, writes Lawson, “if women truly wanted to be treated equally … they should compete not just against each other but in open combat against and alongside the allegedly over-favoured men.” He is surprised to hear that a feminist colleague disagrees with his conclusion. Don’t feminists want men and women to compete on an equal playing field?

Whether he knows it or not, Lawson has stumbled onto one of feminism’s stickiest subjects: the undeniable physical differences between men and women. Although women’s bodies can do incredible, unique things of their own (childbirth, anyone?), men seem to have a biological advantage when it comes to feats of strength and speed. For that reason, athletics is one of the few realms where men and women remain officially segregated.

There are arguments to be made that forcing the sexes to compete together would have its advantages: Perhaps exceptional women athletes would rise to the occasion, train harder, and attain greater personal bests while giving the men a run for their money. And it’s undeniable that the few women who did make it to the top echelons of sex-integrated sports would find a larger audience.

But ending what Lawson calls a sports “apartheid” could also have a dramatically negative effect on women athletes, from the elementary-school level all the way up through Olympians. If female medalists become rare, and if only a few young women each year make their high school’s co-ed soccer team, it’s easy to imagine girls becoming alienated from sports. Why even try if you’re so unlikely to achieve anything you can be proud of?

That’s why I find it impossible to support Lawson’s proposal. But if we are committed to preserving women’s athletics, then we have to ensure that everyone who competes in them is a woman — whatever we define that to mean. So what can we do for the Caster Semenyas of the world? What should a “woman” be, for the purposes of international sports? Should socially constructed gender and biological sex be part of the equation? Should believable-looking girl parts be enough to pass the test? (And, if so, what do we do about transwomen athletes?) Or is this extensive battery of medical and psychological testing necessary? And, perhaps most important of all, is enforcing whatever standard we choose worth publicly destroying the lives and identities of athletes who have only ever known themselves to be women?

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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