For so long it’s been argued men are naturally stronger, faster, and more agile than women. But with the blurring of this male/female binary, competing in sports has become more complex.
Many academics and theorists argue gender is not biological but is socially constructed. Yet sports continue to categorise athletes based on their genitalia and hormone levels.
South-African middle distance runner Caster Semenya was made to undergo numerous tests after concerns about her gender. Semenya obliterated one of her personal best running times by 25 seconds in a competition in 2009. Beating your own time like that is unheard of in athletics.
The combination of her drastic improvement and ‘masculine’ appearance sparked much controversy and tests showed Semenya had a condition called hyperandrogen (excessive levels of testosterone).
The Athletics Federation claimed Semenya wasn’t cheating but this rare medical condition gave her an unfair advantage.
Ealier this year the Federation announced hyperandrogens must take medication to lower their testosterone levels in order to compete. However, the change only applies to 400 m, 800 m, and 1500 m events. Suspiciously, these are the exact same events Semenya competes in.
But this isn’t the only example of gender causing confusion in sport. Similar concerns have been raised around the participation of transgender athletes.
Kiwi weightlifter Lauren Hubbard was formally known as Gavin Hubbard who competed in men’s weightlifting. Hubbard now competes in the 90kg+ female category and is the first New Zealand female to win an international title.
Hubbard’s participation in female events also sparked controversy around the ‘fairness’ of her participation against cis-women. However, the Commonwealth Games Federation CEO David Greveberg defended her, saying policies around gender in sport need to be based on safety and fairness.
So, do sports categories need to change to accommodate transgender and athletes with high levels of testosterone?
Otago University physiology lecturer Alison Heather thinks new sports categories could be created but in doing so would cause issues of “inclusion”.
“It’s not fair to cis-women to have transwomen or highly hyperandrogenic women compete as it is not a level playing ground. Testosterone is an all-purpose performance advantage,” she says.
Heather explains gender identity is very different to biological sex so it’s a tricky one to answer.
There doesn’t seem to be a quick fix to gender-related issues in sport. But I suggest we focus on categories related to ability as opposed to gender. Not only will it make for more interesting competition, it will also allow athletes of all gender identities to compete without the fuss. As children sports teams and events are categorised by the ability of the child. So you girls have competing against boys, and everyone seems to get on with it. But maybe it’s easier said than done.
Pass or play: Disc Golf
You’ve heard of Ultimate Frisbee but what about Disc Golf? The main goal of Disc Golf is the same as regular golf- complete the course in the least amount of strokes- or in this case least amount of throws as possible. Instead of a hole there is a hoop at the end of the course. Disc Golf originated in Canada in the 1920’s but is now played in over 40 countries. New Zealand has 17 Disc Golf courses, a national team called ‘The Flying Kiwis’, and many national tournaments throughout the year.
Ponder that: The Phrase about winning something “Hands Down” originally referred to a Jockey who won a race without whipping his horse or pulling back the reins.