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Caster Semenya Returns to Women's Competition

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The IAAF has declared that South African runner Caster Semenya can resume competing in international women’s events. After an 11 month wait for this clearance Semenya has competed in three track meets in the past several days. She won two of her 800m races and finished third this past weekend.

The problem is that some of her competitors in the 800 meter race are complaining publicly to the press about her participation. Clearly this grumbling is not likely to go away soon and I am sure other competitors who are not speaking publicly share the perspectives shared by two particularly vocal athletes, British runner Jemma Simpson and Canadian Diane Cummins.

Two themes run through their comments. Their comments reflect the belief that Semenya, despite her clearance to participate, is not a “normal” woman. As Diane Cummins opined, "Even if she is a female, she's on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man."

Commenting on the perception that their comments are just sour grapes because they were beaten by Semenya, Cummins adds, “Jemma and I have been beaten tons of times by athletes who we feel are doing it in the realm of what is considered female.” Cummins also said, "There are guys who can challenge Usain Bolt but nobody can challenge Caster Semenya. She is four or five seconds better than any of us and that's incredible.” They do not consider Semenya in the “realm of what is considered female” even though Semenya was beaten by two other women last weekend.

The second theme in their comments is that they feel that their rights and voices are being ignored and that Semenya’s participation threatens the “level playing field.” It’s just not fair from their perspective. Jemma Simpson commented, "It's obviously a human rights issue but human rights affect everyone in the race, not just one person. The rest of the field just gets ignored." Cummins added, "As athletes we feel frustrated because everyone is allowed to give their opinion except us. If we give an honest opinion, we're either seen as bad sports or we're not happy because we're being beaten.”

Simpson notes a PC element to the conversation that she obviously feels silences the voices of the “normal” women, "No way is it a personal issue but it's a debate about what is right and fair for everyone. It's a really tough subject and a lot of people are very careful about what they say. You have to be.”

Simpson again, reflecting some conflict in her perspective, “She's just been allowed to come back on the scene and we're expected just to get on with it. It's fair to an extent but I think we all just want a fair level playing field out there. It would be nice to just – I know it's really none of our business – but it would just be nice to be reassured more than anything."

To be fair to these women, this is a challenging issue. Gender is way more complicated than the nice neat little separate boxes we are invited to check off on forms. Nonetheless most of us operate as if it were just that simple. Certainly the sports world does. You have your men’s sports and your women’s sports. Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple and never has been. It is not surprising that some of Semenya’s competitors are confused and feel that they are being asked to accept a competitive situation that puts them at a disadvantage. They train hard and rely on having a “level playing field” on which to compete and apparently no one has provided them with any information to challenge the prejudices they have about Semenya.

It is interesting to note that outstanding performances by women athletes throughout history have opened these athletes to gender criticism that, as in Semenya’s case, focused on whether or not they were ”normal” women. Babe Didrikson was vilified as an “unfeminine muscle moll.” Sports writers commented on her “masculine” appearance all the time. She intimidated her competitors too and won most of the golf tournaments she entered. In her prime, some of her opponents characterized the experience of facing Martina Navratilova’s powerful game as “like playing a man.” The legendary rivalry between Navratilova and Chris Evert was called “Beauty and the Beast.” Guess who was the beast. Amelie Mauresmo was called “half a man” by rival Martina Hingis. Though Serena Williams was not compared to a man, racist perceptions of her muscular black body created similar reactions that she was somehow not a “normal” woman and had a physical advantage over her less muscular white opponents.

Of course, it wasn’t just about femininity, it was about sexuality too. Babe, Martina and Amelie played their sports too well. They did not conform to feminine and heterosexual expectations. What does it say about women’s sports that we vilify our outstanding performers who do not easily fit in the gender and sexuality box they were assigned at birth?

The problem is that Semenya’s competitors’ comments reflect belief in a gender/sex binary that doesn’t exist. The two separate boxes most of us check off to describe who we are do not reflect the realities of gender as it is lived by many people or the bodies that some of us inhabit. Determining who is eligible to compete in either men’s or women’s sports is a matter of drawing a line somewhere along a spectrum of gender. Where that line is drawn must be based on the best information we have about gender and athletic performance. That is the only way to maintain the integrity of a sports model that is based on separating most sport competitions by sex. The alternative is to eliminate sex as a sports participation category altogether: A step I am not ready to take. I believe more girls and women have opportunities to participate in sport when sports competition are divided by sex, at least starting in high school, than would so if we eliminated sex as a participation category in sport.

The level playing field these athletes refer to in their comments about Semenya is a relative thing. Some would say it is a myth. Athletic competition is about gaining a competitive advantage. It’s what all athletes do to win. It’s just that we have deemed some advantages to be within the realm of fairness and “normalcy” and others not. We recognize and accept as part of the game some genetic advantages that make a few athletes exceptional, but not others, perhaps especially when those characteristics are related to gender.

Just as Babe, Martina, Amelie and Serena challenge normative gender expectations about athletic performance and how we define “woman”, Caster Semenya’s participation in women’s sport is challenging us to acknowledge the reality of a gender spectrum that contradicts the myth of a gender binary. How we respond to Caster Semenya’s self-affirmed identity as a woman and how we make room for her in women’s sports says a lot about how far we have to go in challenging sexism, homophobia and racism in sport. My sense is, judging by the reactions of some of Semenya’s competitors, that we have a long way to go (baby).


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