Despite public health misgivings, the Olympics are happening this month in Tokyo. Though I do not have the same enthusiasm for Olympic games that I once did (a story for another time), I have a lot of respect for sacrifices and commitment of the athletes that train and compete at that level. So I was especially disappointed to hear that several women athletes had been banned from competition for demonstrating physical characteristics deemed ‘too male’ by the sport governing bodies. Caster Semanya has dealt with this for years. There are lots of rationales out there for these current policies, but I think they need revision. A few points to consider here:
- The very nature of identifying ‘the best’ carries some hierarchy, and so what we are left with is the idea of fair competition and an equal playing field. But the Modern Olympiad was never about ‘equality’. Pierre de Coubetin, called ‘the father of the modern Olympics’, was rigidly classist, making efforts to protect competition exclusively for rich upper-class folks, as well as sexist af, calling women’s sport “Impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and we are not afraid to add: incorrect“.
- Olympic athletes and especially champions are not typical people. By definition they reside in the extreme tail ends of human characteristics (the 5 fastest sprinters are at the extreme end of the 99th percentile of human speed). Ever notice how the rowers are always tall? Um, yeah, that is a real advantage in that sport. To place a line arbitrarily defining what is “too much” of a natural characteristic (and to do so only for women) smacks a bit of de Courbetin: Women can’t be too ‘unaesthetic’, too big, too strong, too fast. This idea says that if women are to compete, they must be the women demonstrating the ‘acceptable’ characteristics (which, eyeroll).
- It is not surprising that high performaing athletes cluster in geographic regions, it seems likely that there are phenotypes within a region that contribute to performance, just as long distance running being dominated by folks from north east Africa for a long time. I wonder how likely it is that the guidelines for ‘normal levels’ oversample Europe and North America, and thus discount some of the natural human variation that exists? In the medical field this type of exclusion from studies has happened for metrics like BMI, with the racist result that more black folks are deemed unhealthily overweight. Humans are diverse in a way that is difficult to regulate with a single blood test threshold.
- This testosterone issue is about athletes’ natural body function, which is a completely separate issue from doping (i.e. taking illegal substances to boost performance). Doping should be investigated and punished when found, to create a general deterrent and avoid the health complications that often come with it.
Although sex and gender are different, this topic tends to bring up the topic of Trans athletes too. This year Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand will be the first open transwoman to compete at the Olympic Games; she will compete in weightlifting. She will undoubtedly weather a lot of flack and critique, but is a role model int he truest sense by doing something really difficult and showing that there is a place in sport for transfolk. (Also a hero for being 43 and competing at the Olympics!) Among trans athletes there is also a question of testosterone testing, and this is a tricky one. I have heard many folks jump straight to an apocalyptic future where cis-women can’t/don’t participate because they are no long competitive. Perhaps it is time for sport to acknowledge a long-accepted medical fact: both sex and gender exist on a continuum, not as a binary. Perhaps we can start considering more categories of competition, taking inspiration from the paralympics which classifies types and levels of ability based on physical capacity. If you just had a negative reaction to that idea, I invite you to pause and reflect: Do you feel that the paralympics are not ‘real Olympics’, or ‘not elite’? Would broadening categories ‘water down the Olympics’? What is it that you really value and think is important about the Olympic Games?
These conversations make me think about the ultimate purpose of sport.
Is the purpose of sport to identify a number 1 winner, and a rank order of all athletes? Once I might have thought so. But with the wisdom of retrospect… I raced for a very long time, and the number of gold medals is quite small compared to the number of races, and the number of races is much smaller than the number of training sessions with my team. As the youth-oriented BC Team coach in my 20s I told the assistant coach (Hi Farron!) that we are not just building athletes, but building people. Most of the kids we coached would not end up at World Championships or the Olympics (though a few did), so the lessons they carried forward from attending Canada Games would be more related to working hard for an extended period, being focused on a goal, collaborating with a team, and accepting the outcome. Neither of us went to the Olympics, but we both felt the positive impact that sport had on our lives. There is evidence that participation in sport can build resilience, body acceptance, self efficacy, as well as life-long healthy habits like a love of movement and in the case of outdoor sports like paddling, connection with nature.
In the United States there has been a resurrection of a panic around transgirls participating in sport, this time framed as a ‘competition justice’ issue. Many of the proposed laws seek to ban transgirls from sports teams and competitions. the Mississippi one is called the ‘Fairness Act’… though when I see point 2 above I hear every grown-up’s voice saying ‘life’s not fair’.
It would be a real shame if transwomen or ciswomen with specific body characteristics missed out on these benefits, especialy as kids or youth (a time when most of us could use a boost in self-efficacy, body acceptance, and the benefits of team membership). I’d like to think these current conflicts and friction are the growing pains towards a more just sport system. Until we arrive there I’ll voice my support for inclusion of all naturally diverse-hormone athletes and transathletes.