Personal best: the politics of sex and sport

As promised, a reconsidered response to the recent OFSAA ruling allowing Ontario girls to play on boys’ teams.

In my first post on the topic I offered a typically (for me) lefty case for inclusivity and that was that, or so I thought. In the days that followed I was part of several more discussions about possible consequences and what the policy might mean for the state of girls’ and boys’ sport, and I realized that I hadn’t adequately addressed the topic.

My position was this: As long as we continue to organize sport around a model that sees only two separate sex designations – a gender binary – we are missing an opportunity and imposing a false distinction (and by extension, limits, which I referred to as a “turf ceiling”).

Language impacts how we define these issues (boys’ teams and girls’ teams versus ‘A’ or ‘B’ divisions, perhaps). Keeping this in mind – and I will get back to it – in the following discussion I’ll use the dominant language.

Brawn Drain
If I understand correctly, the main argument against integration has to do with the perceived consequence of allowing a girl to play on a boys’ team: it will open the floodgates to girls who want to improve their game, and girls’ sport will suffer.

One radio commentator characterized Greer’s move as “snubbing her nose at girls’ sport” and suggested that she ought to show her pride as a female athlete by playing with other girls. In the same vein, I heard the comment that Greer was “only doing this to improve her game”.

I have to ask: When did trying to achieve one’s personal best become a shameful aspiration? Has anyone out there ever heard the same criticism levelled at a male athlete? That he is doing something questionable, potentially damaging the state of his sport, by doing whatever it takes to become the best he can be?

The Fairer Sex
This position states that the first time a female athlete is (inevitably) hurt during a competition there will be backlash. Male athletes will suffer because they will feel as though they have to compete more gently. In this way, allowing women to compete in men’s sports will hurt the very fabric of the sport itself.

In 1921 the Football Association banned women’s teams, resulting in the English Ladies Football Association. Here’s a Topical Budget newsreel on the topic:

Doesn’t this look dated, silly, and old-fashioned to you? Though it’s unclear whether the intent of the film is to lampoon the ban or women’s athletics, the result is the same: a gaze that simultaneously sexualizes and patronizes.

Biological Determinism
Boys are simply better (stronger, faster, more skilled) than girls. It’s a fact, and you can’t argue with fact.

But wait – didn’t we just establish that girls only want to play with boys so they can get better? Doesn’t that suggest that female athletes can improve their game? And doesn’t that suggest that restriction of potential is actually caused by the sex segregation (and differential funding and support) between girls’ and boys’ sport?

A fact? No, this seems like a tangled pile of unknowns with major implications for our society and how we imagine ourselves.

The Gender Binary
While we’re on the topic of whether girls can perform as well as boys, let me go back to the case of Caster Semenya. She ran so fast they tested her for steroid use, and then for a penis.

Early tests indicated that Semenya had much higher than normal levels of testosterone. Eight months later the testing continues. Why is this taking so long? Because sex and gender are not static points on a line. How much higher than “normal” must her testosterone levels be to disqualify her from competing as a women? What about male athletes who don’t meet some sort of minimum hormonal requirement? Should they be disqualified from competing as men?

This is an impossible situation: we don’t look to athletics for expressions of perfect, delicate femininity. So why the collective freak out about Semenya? For one, “butch” gender expressions aren’t always welcomed in our culture, a problem that can be compounded when get into the arena of sport because there’s already the suggestion of extraordinariness. How many times have we heard whispers about the sexual identity of this or that female athlete? Strong girls must be lesbians, right?

Caster Semenya at the track

Caster Semenya at the track, image borrowed from the Tenured Radical

The so-called “gender tests” must be mapping Semenya’s hormonal make up (this would have been “settled” long ago if she had visible male sex characteristics). Presumably, she falls into an “elsewhere” on the gender binary – a totally inconvenient fact for ruling bodies like the International Association of Athletics Federation. If she’s intersex, where does she compete? We’d better figure that out, because nobody is going to convince me that she shouldn’t be allowed to.

I have to wonder if she’d have been put through this protracted public depantsing if she’d dolled it up a bit. Have we seen the same treatment of the (brawny, powerful, and yes, long-haired and -nailed) Williams sisters? Before you dismiss the idea, look at the September 2009 cover of You Magazine, out of South Africa.

Caster Semenya on the cover of You magazine

Caster Semenya on the cover of You magazine, image borrowed from the Tenured Radical

“We turn SA’s power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” What a shame.

For much more on this, read the full text of the Tenured Radical’s excellent, articulate, and academic (but accessible) meditation on gender and sport, “In Search of the History That Hasn’t Happened: Caster Semenya, Gender Barriers, and the Right to Compete“. (And a tip of the hat to Liz for bringing the piece to my attention.) Also this post by Jennifer Doyle, blogger at From a Left Wing.

Ultimately, the test results may be moot. Currently, Semenya’s not running, opting instead to focus her energies on opening the Caster Semenya Sports Academy. “We are going to help the young, talented athletes become world champions,” she is quoted as saying in the Associated Press article, “Semenya starts sports academy, will decide future“.

Closer to Home
Now, back to Ontario and the challenges facing athletes, policy-makers and sports governing bodies. I freely admit to a lack of clarity when it comes to implementation. First of all, I believe that integration policies should go both ways, that boys should also be allowed to play on girls’ teams (all of this getting back to the suggestion that we build teams according to skill, not gender, and name them something other than girls’ and boys’ teams). But I also understand the value of same-sex spaces, and by extension, teams. I have played on co-ed teams and girls’ teams, and the experience is totally different. There is a lot to be gained by each and it would be a shame to legislate the option away.

Another logistical problem arises when talking about team sports versus individual sports. Greer made a challenge to be able to play on a team. Semenya competes in a solo sport. Is there a difference? Should policy adapt accordingly?

What about recreational versus competitive sport? What about age? Kids are often placed on co-ed soccer teams, but by the time they get into high school they are segregated. The reasoning behind this seems to be that if there were no girls’ team and teams were chosen on skill only, most girls would not make the team. Do you think this is true?

I am not suggesting that a more inclusive model is magic. These are all issues deserving of the careful attention of policy-makers and players. But ultimately I can not endorse a system that disallows a person to achieve her personal best based on her gender – and that is what we have now.

As a final thought, let’s get back to language. It would appear that, in Ontario at least, a shift is taking place towards a different model. When we insist on framing this change according to gender difference (boys’ teams and girls’ teams) we are limiting ourselves in the way that we can imagine such a change. It is divisive, short-sighted, and ultimately, incorrect. Let’s be careful when we speak, because we are taking the first steps towards our future.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the Tenured Radical article: “A truly just society would simply allow people to compete according to ability… and it would not ask them to perform anything as athletes but feats of speed, strength and skill.”


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One response to “Personal best: the politics of sex and sport

  1. Pingback: Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies « Personal S.A.

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