Thursday, May 2, 2019

Overcoming Sex in the Sports World

A little off the beaten track, but it was interesting to read the reactions to Caster Semenya being forced to reduce her testosterone level in order to compete in women's events.  Caster is "intersex," exhibiting high male levels of testosterone that has given her a significant advantage in competitive women's sports.  She has not lost an 800 m race in four years, blowing away the competition.

While Caster's high testosterone level may be innate, it is a serious concern.  Back in the 1990s the IOC came down hard on Eastern European athletes who were pumping themselves up with testosterone and anabolic steroids to give them a distinct advantage in all sports.  The East German women swim team became synonymous with these "butch athletes," who cleaned up on the gold medals at the 1976 games.  The IOC had banned performance enhancing drugs in 1967, but it remained hard to regulate well into the 1980s.  It wasn't until the wall came down in 1989 that the extent of this doping program was revealed.

No one has touched Jarmila Kratochvilova's staggering run of 1:53.28 in the 800 meter set back in 1983, which she claims was the result of rigorous training and high doses of vitamin B12, although no one is buying it.  Caster is a full second off this time.  Even still, Jarmilla is no match for male athletes.  The men's record by David Rudisha is 1:40.91, set in 2012.

Caster also raises the thorny issue regarding transgender athletes, which she is often confused with.  Renee Richards won a landmark case back in the late 70s that allowed her to compete in women's professional tennis.  She had undergone a sex change to become a woman and felt it was in her right to compete in women's sports.  She did quite well on the tour, reaching a ranking of 20 at one point.  If it wasn't for her age, 43 when she began competing professionally, she probably would have done much better.

Given that women's sports have become very lucrative, there is a great temptation for crossover athletes to compete in these events.  This is what the IAAF is trying to avoid.  Semenya finds herself caught in the middle of this debate as she did nothing to alter her physiognomy.

Women have come a long way since the 1960s when the IAAF wouldn't even let them run an event longer than 1500 meters, presumably out of fear for their health.  Kathrine Switzer had to register herself as K.V. Switzer to compete in the 1967 Boston Marathon, a race she finished with a time just over 3 hours.  She obviously proved women could compete in these events and since then women have shaved a remarkable 45 minutes off that time with Paula Radcliffe running the 2003 London Marathon in 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds.  Still, a 13 minute gap remains between men's and women's records, and it is not likely to be overcome anytime soon.

The difference goes far beyond testosterone to the way men and women are treated in sports.  After puberty, sports are separated by sex.  Before then girls and boys often compete together and there is little distinction between their capabilities.  By the time they reach high school age, the distinctions are profound.  I think this is largely due to attitude and training regiments, not physiognomy.  If girls were allowed to compete with boys throughout high school, I doubt you would see such staggering differences in time and strength.

Sexist attitudes continue through college and professional sports.  It took Title IX to bring some level of equality to sports in college, but you won't find men and women competing together except in a few designated mixed events.  They rarely even train together other than on their own time. This only serves to widen the gap.

Semenya says that the main reason she is so good at the 800 m is that she competed with boys throughout school, although her trainer claims that if she was forced to reduce her testosterone level she would lose as much as 7 seconds off her time, no longer making her Olympic caliber.  We can only wait and see if that will be the case.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gintaras!

    Very good comments, as usual.

    Decades ago I lobbied for passage of Title IX and am very well qualified to discuss the matter. The legislation (which is binding only on USA athletes) should be adopted in some form or another overseas. This will put Semenya on an equal legal footing with her competitors.

    I am very sympathetic to her cause. After all, I'm only 5'6" and a light weight. Despite that, all my athletic life I often competed against athletes who were one foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier than I was. Quite often, I got pushed around and lost sports matches that I would easily have won if I was of normal size. But never once did I go around crying about it. I had been taught to be a good sportsman, to accept my losses graciously, and to shake the hands of my opponents. This I did all my life. Further, in my coaching years I taught my athletes to do the same.

    Semenya has done nothing wrong. When athletes compete against her, they need to practice good sportsmanship and accept any losses graciously. This new legislation needs to be ended and all athletes like Semenya and her opponents need to be on an level playing field, law wise.