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After Semenya: Tracking Male and Female, Injury and Insult

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UPDATE: News of the "gender testing" is leaking out, supposedly showing that she has internal testes and much higher than average levels of testosterone for a woman. This is not supposed to lead to her retroactive disqualification, because it is considered a medical condition of which she was not aware - rather than, like doping, deliberate cheating. However, her future as a woman's athlete is in doubt.

By now some good writers have used the controversy over South African runner Caster Semenya as a lesson in how sex and gender are not perfectly dichotomous. Like night and day, male and female exist as opposite concepts in the human mind. There is a reasonable cause for this, reproductively speaking. It is not a heterosexist plot to suppress sex diversity -- or at least not only such a plot. But, to spin out the metaphor, there are times during each twirl of the Earth that defy characterization into one of those opposing categories. Thankfully, we have people to not only explain this scientifically, but to speak up for those who might otherwise be confined to the shadows in between.

Neither is men's sex advantage in some sports a sexist myth, as The Nation would have you believe. They write that "being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success. A country's wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could." Believe me, I appreciate the social construction of gender -- and even the social construction of sex, explained most rivetingly by Donna Haraway. But Zirin and Wolf strongly imply that the male sex advantage in track and field is the result of greater resources devoted to male athletes. If they were correct, women from rich countries would beat the times of men from poor countries in Olympic track events, but they don't.

In fact, without taking anything away from Semenya's phenomenal accomplishments on the track, she is nowhere near as fast as the world's top male runners.

Since the 1970s, the fastest women have been running 800 meters in times between 1:53 and 1:57 - Semenya ran 1:55.5, more than two seconds slower than the female world record - set in 1983 by the presumed-to-be-doping Czech, Jarmila Kratochvílová (who bore a surprising resemblance to Roger Daltrey). Meanwhile, the world's fastest men have been running between 1:41 and 1:44 -- light years ahead. In this race (unlike the 100 meters) neither sex has improved its fastest times much in the last 30 years.

This does not mean women are the weaker sex. In fact, the opposite is true. Where it really counts, survival, women's advantage is unchallenged. In every single year of age, males are more likely to die than females.

Nor does this deny the advantages of wealth, nutrition and other opportunities. It is not a feat of racial genetics that leads Whites to dominate in sports like golf, swimming and figure skating. These are expensive sports to train for, compared with running. Until recent years most of the best golfers weren't even especially strong men, but they were rich. Socially, though, such opportunities matter much more for the average person than they do for the extreme bodies that compete on the Olympic stage.

For example, contrary to popular stereotype, the average White man in America is taller than the average Black man. It is not the average height of the two populations that determines who plays in the NBA, but the uses to which tall individuals put their relative advantages -- given the opportunities they have to choose from. How many magnificently gifted athletes threw away all their athletic potential just because they had the opportunity to get filthy rich as investment bankers or neurosurgeons?

So why are there women's sports? At least in track and field, it's because otherwise, at the top levels, mostly men would win. That means that, in at least one way, women's track and field is like the Special Olympics -- by which I mean no disrespect to either. We have different categories of athletes so that people who belong to groups that have historically been marginalized in athletics have a chance to compete at the top of their potential and be rewarded as champions for winning. In such cases, the definition of the categories is important. Think of an under 6' league in basketball. You'd have to measure the height of the players, because many would be 5'11".

Having thought about it just this much, and with no expertise in sports but a commitment to gender equality, I think it's OK to have sex-stratified sports in the context of overall gender inequality. More important than what happens at the very top level is what happens to all the people who just want to be athletic. Sex-stratified sports are motivational for women and girls, and help promote the dedication of social and economic resources to female athletes, which remains a big problem despite Title IX.

For fairness at the top levels, you have to police that sex boundary. Of course, as Alice Dreger explains, female elite athletes are not typical women. They are likely to have succeeded in part because they have some of the hormonal advantage that men have -- sex is a continuum, and top female runners are more likely to have bodies closer to the male side of the social dividing line (wherever that happens to be).

And contrary to the impression left by some critics, the International Association of Athletics Federations is not rigidly imposing a stereotypical line between "male" and "female," so that women who are "too good" are thrown into the "male" category. In fact, they have a very complicated explanation of their "Policy On Gender Verification," which attempts to identify and exclude from female competition only those who possess a hormonal advantage over other women. Unfortunately, while they helpfully list intersex conditions that are allowed in "female" events, they don't define those that are disallowed, except in the case of sex reassignment, which is what the policy seems intended to address.

As satisfying as it would be from a social constructionist perspective, and as patriarchal as it seems to demand sex tests, I don't think it is fair to rely solely on gender self-identity for athletic grouping at the top levels. That is what The Nation would do, as they call for an end to sex testing without opposing sex segregated sports. But clearly to avoid the kind of abuse that Caster Semenya has gone through, the testing has to be universal and confidential. (And for reasons of fairness I'd support testing for the "male" category, too.)

Where to draw the line -- or how to fit a line over the curve of human variation? I'm not expert on the science of the sex continuum, but I think that given the gap in ability between the top men and even the "suspect" top women, the fair place to draw the line is way over toward the male end of female. That might seem unfair to some of the other female competitors, but in this case they've been complaining even though Semenya hasn't even broken the women's record -- she's just faster than them. So I have little sympathy.

Unless we find intersex domination of "female" sporting events, I think the risk of giving them an advantage is the price we should pay, since the alternative is forcing women with some ambiguous hormonal advantage to run with the top men, against whom they would lose, and thus effectively excluding them from top competition. And that would just add injury to insult.