Tag Archives: track and field

Olympics Gender Rules Reach New Lows


Caster Semenya

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have written about Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, and Olympics gender testing, viewing the whole crooked game through a sexist lens … and there’s no doubt that the gender rules have a nasty sexist streak. But I didn’t realize before this month how racist these rules are as well.

The International Association of  Athletics Federation (IAAF), the organization that oversees track and field rules, has released its new guidelines. A visitor from another planet might wonder about the new rules, which set a maximum testosterone level for female athletes … only in “international track events from 400m to one mile.”

Lindsay Gibbs, writing at Think Progress, breaks it down:

If that selection of factors seems curiously specific to you, your suspicion is justified. Caster Semenya — a South African Olympic champion runner who has been subjected to rigorous sex testing and unfathomable levels of scrutiny about her body during her nine years in the international spotlight — just happens to compete in the 800m and 1500m events.

Make no mistake about it: This is a racist, sexist rule implemented by rich, white men solely to control the bodies of women, primarily women of color from the global south with intersex traits. It’s a rule propped up by ersatz science and logic that don’t pass even the most basic of inspections, and while the rule appears custom-made to derail Semenya’s dominance, its existence will damage the bodily autonomy of many others.

The IAAF has some studies — financed by *drum roll* itself — which purport to support these rules. And of course, they claim that the purpose is “to be fair.” Read Gibbs’ article for the statistical flaws. And then notice, again, that the events targeted are ones where Semenya (who is from South Africa) and Dutee Chand (who is from India) are standout competitors. Pole vault and hammer throw showed the highest performance advantage for competitors with higher testosterone levels, and are not included in the new regulations: We note that when dark-skinned women from the global south are not key competitors, somehow the sports don’t seem to need the same protections.

Dutee Chand

Jeré Longman also wrote a somewhat less political piece about this issue for the New York Times.

Many factors affect performance, and the I.A.A.F. has struggled to show conclusively that elevated testosterone provided women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, age, height, weight, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations like oxygen-carrying capacity.

In a follow-up article today, Gibbs chronicles how South African professor Steve Cornelius, an expert on sports law, has left the IAAF over these issues. Cornelius,  who had only held his post a short time, resigned in an open letter to the IAAF, which says in part:

Sadly, I cannot in good conscience continue to associate myself with an organization which insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be. The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of our planet.

Neither Semenya nor Chand–nor probably dozens of other affected athletes–ever had a reason to question their gender, or identify as anything other than simply female–until the predominantly white male IAAF decided to be the gender police. Of course, they are not ashamed of themselves … but they should be. Along with Steve Cornelius, Lindsay Gibbs, and a host of other justice-minded people, I’m ashamed of them.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the link to the New York Times article.


Trans American Revolution

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were deeply struck by this interview with Keelin Godsey, Olympic contender (who didn’t quite make it) for the hammer throw event. It’s worth listening to the whole thing.

Godsey identifies and lives as a man, and competes as a woman, for reasons that he explains clearly in this amazingly open conversation with Ann Schatz.  The International Olympic Committee has had clear rules (the “Stockholm Consensus”) since the 2004 Summer Games. These rules are pretty stiff–to compete in the gender you were not biologically born into, you have to have had both top and bottom surgery and been on gender hormones for two years (if transitioning to male) and one year (if transitioning to female). The rules are also very gender essentialist, and don’t help in cases of indeterminate sexuality (such as Castor Semenya). At the same time, the very existence of clear rules for trans athletes was a major step towards legitimacy.

This year, Godsey was the first out American transperson ever to be a serious Olympic contender. As such, he was featured in a superb and sympathetic article in Sports Illustrated by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein:

At 5’9″ and 186 pounds, Godsey is tautly muscular. He wears glasses and is dressed in black from his sneakers to his knit cap, which sheathes his blond, spiky hair. Over and over, from in front of a chain-link backstop, he grips the hammer’s handle and whirls in accelerating circles until it’s no longer clear whether he is spinning the ball or the ball is spinning him. His target distance, 226’4½”, is out on a gravel path beyond the frost-covered craters.

Godsey only learned the word transgender when he took a freshman seminar taught by Erica Rand, a women and gender studies professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Soon after, in another class, Godsey was shown a survey that had been administered by psychiatrists to judge gender identity. “In my head I was circling the answers,” he recalls. “I was like, Oh, crap.”

In the spring of 2005, shortly after shattering the Division III women’s championship hammer record (by throwing 195’4″), Godsey tackled his biggest challenge to date. After confiding in Rand, the then junior e-mailed Bates’s dean of students and athletic director to notify them of an impending change: Beginning with the fall semester, Kelly would permanently become Keelin and wished to be referred to as he.

Godsey still can’t remember what he said when he stepped in front of the bleachers that fall and informed his women’s track teammates of their captain’s new identity. … “It was a nerve-racking experience. I kind of blacked out.” All he knows is that the 30 or so girls around him were “pretty awesome” when they heard the news.

The article also includes a detailed survey of the history of trans athletes, from Renee Richards, who transitioned in the late 1970s, to a young soccer player, identified only as “Jazz,” who at eleven is living as female and fighting for her right to play competitive soccer in her chosen identity.

Looking at (and listening to) Godsey, we are struck by how difficult it is for him to choose between his deeply-felt identity as a championship track and field athlete–an identity which got him through years of bullying and harassment in high school and later–and his deeply felt identity as a man, which he believes is in some ways at odds with his athlete identification. He has consistently said that he would start medical transition after this year’s Olympic trials, whether he made the games or not. But now that he’s come so close, he’s not so sure. Transitioning will undoubtedly change his abilities. He’s in the uncomfortable (but familiar to many, and not only in sports) position of having to choose one “primary” identity over another. And he talks about it with remarkable candor.

In the article, we see something else. Sports Illustrated, the most mainstream of all sports journalism venues, has published a thoughtful, informed article about talented and likable trans athletes. This article says on every page, “These people deserve to be who they are.” That Torres and Epstein wrote the article is laudable, that SI published it marks an ongoing sea change in the world of sports.

Seeing this article called out on the cover of Sports Illustrated is both surprising and vindicating. The  article surveys close to a dozen sports figures, in different sports, in different roles in the sports world, from different generations. All of these people have made or are making their life in the world of sports, being public about their birth genders and their current genders. This kind of social change can only happen when advocates are working tirelessly behind the scenes for change; at the same time, it only happens when the world is ripe for the advocacy.