Gender Stabilization – Correction and Additions

It looks like Caster Semenya will get to keep her Gold Medal irrespective of the results of the sex test… so, what was the whole fuss about if not the “she can’t be a girl if she runs that fast so she has to be a dude” argument (if you can call it that).

Anyway, I am bumping yet again a couple of comments from The Grumpy Sociologist as they correct a couple of things in my previous post and add racial and nationalist elements to the mix / mess. As always, my comments are in blue.

“Anyhow, kind of a minor correction. Semenya is not the world record holder in the 800m. In fact, she’s quite a bit off, and there is some significance to that. The world record is 1:53.28, held by Jarmila Kratochvilova of the Czech Republic set back in ‘83. Semenya “only” ran around 1:55.something if I remember correctly. Semenya’s time — awesome as it is — is quite far off from the world record by track & field standards at that distance (I would say anything over 1.00 seconds is still quite a bit for the 800m). So why the hell is she being questioned so much as a female athlete when she didn’t even challenge the world record?!?!?

[It is indeed interesting, isn’t it? Especially considering the fact that we easily accept exceptional performances by men quite commonly even when the use of performance-enhancing drugs is almost a given (See: France, Tour de)]

Some say it’s partly, if not largely, because of her race. See here -

“Caster Semenya: that’s our girl you’re messing with” by Pinky Khoabane

Interview with Pinky Khoabane on NPR

Basically, white track & field female athletes of similar build and who have such amazing athletic success are no longer questioned as women. Another example – Martina Navratilova was never questioned as a biological woman back in the ’70s/’80s despite her musculature and athletic success, certainly not in the same way as Semenya. Perhaps because she was (1) white, and (2) in an acceptably feminine sport. [note: I know, Navratilova experienced other, very unfair forms of discrimination.]

[Heck, as much as there was general shock with the female East German swimmers back in the 1970s, the fuss was nowhere near what it has been for Semenya!]

Also I’d like to point out that there’s also a nationalism issue to this. Back in 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner (rest her soul) of the USA truly smashed the world records in the 100m and 200m races (it is much, much more difficult to break records in those races by large increments), and she split 47.x seconds in the 4X400 relay, which is extremely rare for women. She was also extremely muscular, more so in my opinion than Semenya. True, Flo-Jo specialized in different events than Semenya that often result in different body types. However, Flo-Jo was questioned for taking steroids. She was never questioned as a woman, and I think that had Semenya been from the US, her sex wouldn’t have been an issue. Perhaps roids would have been more of an issue (speculation of roids has been raised for Semenya, albeit not strongly).

[But you’re right, roids testing is just a matter of blood testing and is probably done more or less routinely. Gender testing is a whole other ballgame. The entire athlete’s identity is questioned.]

Also, for those interested in sports and gender, there’s an interesting book, “Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is not Equal in Sports” by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappnao which addresses some of the issues you raised here regarding society not being able to accept gender along a continuum.”

[Link and image added]

The other comparison worth noting is Usain Bolt. He smashed his own world records in the 100m and 200m races at this year’s world championships. His times are unreal. Being male, his gender simply won’t be questioned, period. Because there are only two sexes available according to the IAAF, guys just don’t have to deal with this issue irrespective of their athletic successes/build. Only certain female athletes must cope with this testing.

[Ha, but it’s because of the gender hierarchy thingie: a high-performing woman has to be a dude, but a high performing man has to be… what?? A mutant? Being a man is already the top of the gender hierarchy. There is no higher step. A high-performing man is just an exceptional athlete whose abilities have to be celebrated (and the examples of that can be multiplied: Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, etc.). Not to mention that being a high-performing athlete is the consummate demonstration of one’s masculinity.  To be a high-performing FEMALE athlete is to challenge norms of femininity by building up muscles (Navratilova got away with it BECAUSE of her sexual orientation… well, of course she’s big and strong! Compare her to Chris Evert, her arch-rival at the time… and Navratilova was a political refugee, a trophy in the Cold War, so, she got a pass on a few things) and displaying traits perceived to be masculine (competitive, combative, etc.)… like Brandi Chastain taking her jersey off on the field after kicking the winning goal for the US at the World Cup.

At a lower level than world championship, sometimes, when girls are really good, they get to play with the boys… do we make low-performing boys play with the girls? Nah, that would be too demeaning, wouldn’t it “Ewww, you play with the GIRLS!” I bet parents would be up in arms against it.]

5 thoughts on “Gender Stabilization – Correction and Additions

  1. The mention of Navratilova is not fair or applicable.
    Navratilova’s gender was never questioned because, in part, when she hit the pro tennis tour as a 16-year-old, she was a pudgy girl who had not yet begun the fitness regime that transformed her body into the leaner, more overtly muscular athlete she became.
    In addition to racism being a very possible factor here, I think Semenya also had the misfortune of being a relative unknown who went up against athletes who already considered her an outsider, resented losing to her, and gave into voicing their unkind impulses and suspicions because it has been well established that there has been a lot of cheating in world-class track for quite a few years.
    I found the way the testing was handled — not confidentially, and only after she won — appalling, and see no reason why it was ever publicized at all. It would’ve spared everyone embarrassment and cruelness — Semenya most of all.
    Very sad story in that regard.

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