Tag Archives: Caster Semenya

First Japanese woman to compete in US men’s professional baseball, and some updates (Semenya and the Iranian girls’ football team)

According to kickitout.org, baseball pitcher Eri Yoshida is making history for being the first Japanese female to play baseball in the US male professional league.

Eri Yoshida, from kickitout.org

Eri Yoshida, from kickitout.org

Yoshida’s maverick balling began in Japan when at 16 she was drafted to Kobe Cruise 9 in the minor Kansai Independent League, making her the first female to play professionally in that country. Now, playing for the Chico Outlaws, she’s the third woman ever (and first Japanese woman) to play in the US men’s professional league.

“There are probably ladies who think they might be able to compete at a high level, but maybe don’t have the confidence. This will give them the confidence. This will open doors.”
– Chico manager Gerry Templeton

Elsewhere in the sport and gender universe, Caster Semenya is competing again, but news reports are still consistently muddied by rumors of official wrong-doing related to the six months of “gender testing” forced on the runner. At this point, I really haven’t the foggiest idea what the official line is, but it’s clear that Semenya’s name will be associated more with a gender panic than with her astonishing athletic contributions for some time. Pity.

And finally, the Iranian girls’ football team is competing at the Youth Olympics in Singarpore. You’ll recall that the team was originally banned from participating in hijab and removed from eligibility.  Then, a modified uniform was presented that met Youth Olympic guidelines for sport safety, but prompted Marzieh Akbarabadi (who’s in charge of women’s sports in Iran) to protest, calling the outfit “inappropriate”. It would appear that a compromise has been reached, because the team is in Singapore competing.

Photo from The Ledger Independent, (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Photo from The Ledger Independent, (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was on hand to watch the Iranian girls’ game, and offered this:

“It’s very important,” Blatter said. “It’s very important for football, that football be played by and in all cultures. Especially at this level of the youths, and the Olympic idea, I think it’s very important.”
– Sepp Blatter, “Headscarf issue solved, Iran girls focus on soccer

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Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies

When I come across additional information or small updates to a story I have been following, I typically add it at the bottom of the original post in an “update” box. The problem with this is that nobody gets a notification, so unless you’re a new (or obsessive) reader you’re not going to see it. I’m going to try something new today: a “roundup”.

Here’s what’s going on in my world:

1) Caster Semenya has (finally) been cleared to race “as a woman”.
You all know what I think about this (for those just joining us, go here), but I do want to add that the IAAF is not disclosing any details. Their statement was brief (or “terse”, according to Barry Petchesky, author of
Explaining The Caster Semenya Decision, Because The IAAF Won’t,” published on Deadspin), which makes a wrap-up difficult. Suffice to say that I still see this as a sad chapter, and one we will regret.

2) Iranian girls team may be banned from youth tournament… again.
You will remember that back in April 2010, FIFA banned the Iranian girls’ team from competing in the Youth Olympic Football Tournament based on the fact that the players were beholden by their religion to wear hijab (head scarves). Cue (righteous) outrage. By early May FIFA had about-faced and allowed the girls to play in a game-modified uniform.

A month passes.

Iran may not send its girls’ football team to the Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over the players’ Islamic attire, Iranian media reported on Thursday. The deputy head of Iran’s physical education department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, was quoted by newspapers, including Khabar Varzeshi, or Sport News, as saying the newly designed dress was “inappropriate.” [The uniform] was unveiled during a practice session on Wednesday, which Akbarabadi, who is in charge of all women’s sports in Iran, left in protest.
– Nasser Karimi, “Iran girls’ football team may miss Singapore event,” Associated Press (July 8, 2010)

You know what? I said this before and I say it again, and this time with feeling: Let them play! These girls are athletes. They’ve trained (despite mighty opposition) to become good enough to qualify, yet all around are powers-that-be lining up to play Daddy to them.

I am not qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of hijab, but I can tell you with utter certainty that these players should be accommodated. No person should be forced to cast aside one love (football) for another (one’s religion).

3) Grannies Grannies find a way
Way back on the first day of the World Cup I wrote about Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), a South African soccer team comprised of women between the ages of 49 and 84. A month ago they were hoping to inspire South African president Jacob Zuma to provide the finances to send the team to compete at the Veteran’s Cup, a tournament for teams with players of 30 years and older that takes place in Lancaster, Massachusetts (Source: “For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood“, New York Times, June 6, 2010). Apparently Zuma left their exhibition game without seeing their victory (8-0, defeating the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team).

Yesterday Herbalife (Yes, that Herbalife) issued a press release:

Herbalife Ltd. has teamed up with the United States Adult Soccer Association…, the Massachusetts Adult State Soccer Association (MASS), the Veterans Cup committee… and the Lexpressas women’s soccer team to help the Vakhegula-Vakhegula soccer team come to America to compete in the annual Veteran’s Cup tournament this week.
– “Soccer Grannies to Compete in Veteran’s Cup,” Marketwatch, July 13, 2010

Apparently, in return the players will play in jerseys sporting the Herbalife logo. Zuma missed a brilliant opportunity. He could have been the dream-maker. It’s a shame but it’s his loss. Grannies Grannies found a way despite his indifference.

Who’s up for a road trip to Lancaster? I hear there’s some world-class soccer going on.

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“…until independent experts agree that the treatment has been effective.”

I live on the Internet. I work there, I read there, and I write there. But sometimes, when a topic confounds, I just gotta close my eyes and turn to another medium. God bless radio.

Radio insists on brevity. And in the rising swell of gabbling voices (mine included), it is this simple two-sentence story borrowed from Radio New Zealand that quietly drops the penny:

The World 800 metre champion Caster Semenya of South Africa has been undergoing hormone-based treatment for what is widely accepted now to be an inter-sex condition and could return to competition at some point this year.

Semenya won’t be allowed to compete at IAAF sanctioned events until independent experts agree that the treatment has been effective.

– “Hormone treatment for controversial gold medallist“, Radio New Zealand

It would appear (from this and other sources) that the IAAF is requiring hormone “treatment” in return for permission to compete. Be exceptional… but not that exceptional. It’s a standard that doesn’t seem to apply to everyone:

Yao Ming. All 7 feet, six inches of him. Photo credit: The Calgary Sun

Yao Ming. All 7 feet, 6 inches of him. Photo credit: The Calgary Sun

According to his Wikipedia page, Yao Ming “…is one of China’s best-known athletes, with sponsorships with several major companies, and he has been the richest celebrity in China for six straight years.”  Imagine if he’d been banned from his sport for having his remarkable – yet unfair! – physical advantage.

I am not going to belabour this point, but I believe that Caster Semenya’s story is going to be one of those sad chapters in history that future administrations will regret. It will be remembered as yet another example of our collective ignorance around sex and gender. We will wonder why we she was pathologized when she could just as easily have been lionized.

UPDATE: On May 19, the Telegraph published an article, “Caster Semenya’s rights being ‘swept under the carpet’, says sports scientist Tim Noakes” by Simon Hart. It’s worth a read, if only for the fact that in it, Noakes says what nobody else in the mainstream press seems willing to:
“So it seems it’s not about athletic advantage. It’s about keeping the Olympics free of intersex athletes, free of unwanted complications.” – Tim Noakes

Remarkably direct.

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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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