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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Thank you so much Dave, Sherry and fellow readers for your sensitive and thoughtful comments on the case of Caster Semenya. I also appreciated the follow-up on how well she has been treated in her home town/country and the background information about the attempts to fight homophobia in South Africa. I agree with many of the letter-writers that it is a complex issue and may not be resolved simply by outlawing sex testing. I also believe that anyone who thinks we can discuss (women's) athletics without touching on sexism, homophobia and gender issues is not paying attention.

Of course there must be rules in sports, but we must always look at these rules with a critical eye, as they have developed within a system that has repeatedly been marred by discrimination.

Sex and gender are indeed two different concepts and I am so glad Dave and Sherry and their readers are keeping us thinking about these issues. My heart also goes out to women like Caster and her fellow athletes who continually have to fight against our society's outdated stereotypes.

Bettemie Prins

Oakland, CA

Aug 27 2009 - 3:02pm

Web Letter

"When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits." Huh? To quote Barney Frank, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

Just as an example here are the gold, silver and bronze times for the fifty-meter freestyle swimming event at the 2008 Olympics:
Men's: 21.30, 21.45, 21.49
Women's: 24.06, 24.07, 24.17

I'll agree that gender is a complex issue, with biological, psychological, and sociological components. But sports have rules because they are competitions that determine winners and losers. And people cheat to gain unfair advantage. Without a rules-verification process, chaos reins.

Just ask the US women's gymnastics team how much fun it is to compete against a bunch of cheaters.

Lance Miller

Knoxville, TN

Aug 26 2009 - 12:40pm

Web Letter

This a complex issue--one not to be resolved with polemics or accusations.

Perhaps we should be asking why, invariably (to the best of our knowledge), intersex athletes choose to compete as women. Could it be that they feel they have a better chance of winning?

If the answer is "yes," then is it not understandable why female athletes feel disadvantaged having to compete with athletes whom nature may have given an "advantage" on the track or court, if not in other respects.

I would be more likely to agree with Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf if I heard of examples of intersex athletes opting to compete with men.

As it is, IAAF has an impossible task: finding a solution that satisfies intersex and female athletes. They are asked to choose between empathy and fairness.

H. Peter Muth

Spruce Head, ME

Aug 26 2009 - 11:51am

Web Letter

It's not gender. It's sex. Gender is a grammatical term. Words, in certain languages, have gender. Living things have sex.

This use of "gender" as a synonym for "sex" is a fairly recent (twenty or thirty years or so?) trend. It was used occasionally in this sense back then, but now it seems to be the preferred word.

Is this prudery, PC or what?

Lets say what we mean. When talking grammar it's gender, when talking biology it's sex.

Ricardo Cabeza

Santiago, Chile

Aug 26 2009 - 11:36am

Web Letter

The only basis for testing her sex are the observations of track and field folks around her about how she looks and performs "like a man" (whatever the hell that means). Female athletes have always been subject to comments from people who deem them manly because of how they look or act. I don't believe general observations of a person's physique or performance should make them subject to sex testing. Will we next begin grouping female athletes based on their muscle composition and hormone levels?

Meghan Skwirz

Barrington, RI

Aug 25 2009 - 5:38pm

Web Letter

"Intersex"? This is actually the first time I have heard this term. My, how the English language evolves! Being the lingua franca, I wonder how the other European tongues will adapt it?

John Molina

Chula Vista, CA

Aug 24 2009 - 6:36pm

Web Letter

The driving force behind Castor's humiliation is our desperate, highly monied need for athletic spectacles that produce commercially viable heroic figures. Our constant fascination with the ill treatments of the bodies of sportspeople, and dilemmas such as this one, would be history if we cared much less about creating larger-than-life figures for our cereal boxes and much more about encouraging participation by men and women in socially engaging, challenging, excitingly competitive sports. In a world in proportion, so what if a man wants to pass as a woman once in a while, or visa-versa? We should be asking why that is such a big deal, rather than how to successfully maintain our Olympic and other overblown sports fetishes.

Rob Weinberg

Berkeley, CA

Aug 22 2009 - 11:58pm

Web Letter

I fully agree with Ian Blaustein. Zirin's and Wolf's article suggest they must be from another planet. As long as women cannot compete on equal terms with men in sports, sports should be segregated. As long as sports are segregated, elite women athletes will sometimes have to suffer gender testing. This is simple logic.

Desegregating sports would be infinitely worse for women's sports than striking down Title IX!

David Hawla

Barrington, RI

Aug 22 2009 - 9:12pm

Web Letter

Thank you for this article. It is important that we ask ourselves what it is we want from the separation of men and women in sports.

We need to see the reaction to Semenya in relation to sexism and homophobia. We also need to question our investment in perpetuating this picture of men and women as "opposite" and "absolutely different" from each other.

I wish we could whip ourselves into this sort of frenzy over the way women athletes are treated every day--from the panicked language of WPS memos singing the "femininity" of their PUMA uniforms, to the total acceptance of sexist and homophobic jokes about female athletes in sports discourse, to the subjection of gender-rebellious women to the worst forms of violence by people who are deeply threatened by just the idea that a woman might want to play soccer or run.

The former South African National Soccer Team player Eudy Simelane was raped and murdered--for her athleticism, for her visible queerness. While we did see a couple stories about this (part of a wave of assaults on butch lesbians) we did not see the macho and homophobic sports media stop to ask itself what it might be doing--in the months leading up to the World Cup--to create feminist and anti-homophobic sports culture.

Thank you for showing that there is at least one media organization willing to give this a try.

Jennifer Doyle

Los Angeles, CA

Aug 22 2009 - 8:32pm

Web Letter

Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf conclude their article with these two sentences: "We should continue to debate the pros and cons of gender segregation in sport. But right here, right now, we must end sex testing and acknowledge the fluidity of gender and sex in sports and beyond."

But if we end sex testing, and acknowledge the fluidity of gender and sex in sports, how could we possibly maintain gender segregation in sports? Between what groups would we segregate?

If we are going to continue to segregate sports, that is, to hold separate men's and women's competitions, we are going to have to distinguish between who gets to compete in which competition. That means we're going to have to draw a line somewhere, somehow, between men and women. Given what the authors refer to as "the physical reality of intersex people," there are likely to be problematic cases. If, as the authors say, physical sex is "ambiguous and fluid," then no matter where we draw the line, there will be problematic cases. And dealing with those problematic cases will require exactly the sort of painful, and, as the authors say, "arduous" and "humiliating" tests that Caster Semenya is now unfortunate enough to have to undergo.

So does that mean that the sports world should "acknowledge the fluidity of gender and sex" by ending "gender segregation in sport?" The authors rightly note that "Title IX, the 1972 law imposing equal funding for girls' and boys' sports in schools, has radically altered not only women's fitness and emotional well-being but their bodies as well." Women's sports have indeed made incredible strides since 1972. The gap between men's performances and women's performances has narrowed quite a bit since we've started putting more emphasis, both cultural and financial, on women's athletics.

But in many sports, such as track and field, the gap is still considerable. For instance, Ms. Semenya won the Women's 800 meters in a time of 1:55.45, beating the second-best woman at the race by 2.45 seconds, a gigantic margin in a race of that length. Of course, she would have had to run the 800 in 148.41, that is, 7.04 seconds faster than she did, and 4.87 seconds faster than any woman ever has, to have qualified for the Men's Semifinals at this same World Championships meet (assuming that she found herself in the slowest Men's heat of the competition). Her nation, South Africa, brought two men, Samson Ngoepe and Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who did qualify for the Semifinals, and Mr. Mulaudzi will run in the Final tomorrow.

So the fact is that if the World Championships did not "segregate by gender," Ms. Semenya would not have had to suffer the indignity of sex testing, not only because it would be generally unnecessary, but because, in all likelihood, her nation's athletic commission would not have bothered spending the money to bring her, knowing that she had no real chance of qualifying. The same goes for every other female runner, jumper, hurdler or thrower at these World Championships: they are only there because track and field, as a sport, segregates by gender.

My point is not to belittle the talents and accomplishments of these women. They are all, by any reasonable measure, very strong and very fast, and their training is certainly more arduous than anything most of us dare to put ourselves through.

My point is that the many of the great strides that women's athletics have made in recent decades would not have happened without segregation. And the further great strides they are likely to make in the coming decades will not happen in the absence of segregation.

To put it more simply: if we stop holding separate competitions for men and women in track and field, we are de facto barring women from competition in track and field.

Quick recap: if we don't draw a line between men and women, we can't have separate men's and women's sports. If we don't have separate men's and women's sports, women are pretty much out of track and field.

What Ms. Semenya is going through is obviously awful, and it's certainly regrettable, but cases like hers are, I'm afraid, a necessary evil. The alternative is much worse.

Ian Blaustein

Cambridge, MA

Aug 22 2009 - 4:25pm