What is masculine and what is feminine, and how does that impact modern sports?
There are beautiful women footballers now. They should wear tighter shorts and low-cut shirts to create a more female aesthetic.
That priceless piece of advice is from none other than FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the man who heads the governing body of one of the most popular team sports in the world.
Sadly Blatter – who would easily dominate any compendium of quotes on misogyny, racism and plain ignorance – is simply one of the many custodians of competitive sports who have failed to cast off archaic notions of masculinity and femininity.
Modern sports promises to embody the competitive spirit of humanity, a striving for perfection that is based upon natural talent and diligent practice, free of the shackles of caste, race, colour or gender – at least on paper. Reality, however, has come with its usual shades of grey : from unconcealed intolerance towards Jews and African-Americans in the 1936 “Nazi” Summer Olympics to the protracted crusade by women tennis players for equal prize money, sports has struggled to live up to its goal of “perfect competition”.
The latest victim of this inequity is none other than ace Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who has refused to back down against the newest weapon in the arsenal of misogynist sports officials – gender testing of female athletes for masculine traits. Three years ago, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) ruled that women who naturally produce testosterone at levels usually found in men would be barred from competing as women (although both men and women produce testosterone, its levels are usually – but not always – higher in men. In popular culture, it is often referred to as the male hormone). There is only one way out for those wishing to compete – undergo medical surgery and hormone therapy to reach the “acceptable” androgen levels for females.
As this excellent feature on Chand and her fight against this rule explains, the logic of the IAAF in banning women with higher testosterone levels is a belief that it gives them an unfair advantage – a belief that has been repeatedly challenged by several experts in the medical community. According to Katrina Karkazis of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University:
Testosterone is only one ingredient among many that affect athletic performance, and there is no scientific basis for claiming that it is either the singular or the most important dividing line between men and women athletes.
But if the IAAF considers testosterone to be such an important marker of performance, does it also test its male athletes? No, even though a 2009 study of elites athletes found:
a significant overlap in testosterone values in men and women…. Around 5% of the women tested in the “male range”…. Even more tellingly, 25% of the men, including some Olympic medalists, were below the “male range”, with a large number testing in the “female range”
As Karkazis rightly remarks:
There is no stigma for men who are strong and fast. There are no tests for men to weed out those who produce more testosterone than other men. Why not?
Interestingly, as the article highlights, sports is replete with examples of athletes who achieved extraordinary success, at least a part of which may be attributable to biological anomalies. The most famous of these are Michael Phelps, the most successful swimmer in history, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes hyperflexibility and long limbs, and Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth, who is born with very long legs. More recently, authors such as David Epstein (The Sports Gene) have argued that some “perfect” athletes may be born with an extra something, a physiological advantage that cannot be explained away by practice (though the advantage is obviously wasted without hard work).
If Phelps and Bolt have not been disbarred for naturally occurring phenomenon that possibly give them an advantage over their competitors – and rightly so, too – why are women athletes being singled out for a similar occurrence, despite the absence of decisive evidence that this impacts their performance? If the sportsman spirit calls for Not Guilty unless conclusively proven otherwise, why are women being prosecuted without a trial? And this is not unique to athletics. As we noted earlier on MBRB, sexism is prevalent across all sports, from tennis to our beloved cricket.
Sadly, 18 year old Chand is not the first Indian athlete to face the possible end of a promising career for not being “woman enough”. Eight years ago, Santhi Soundarajan’s brilliant athletic career was wrecked when she was stripped of her Asian Games medal and disbarred from competing after failing a gender test. Soundarajan drank a bottle of poison when she discovered the news on TV, and was rehabilitated after years of discrimination.
Luckily for Chand, she has help in her crusade – not just from the medical, scientific and legal community. but also from the director general of the Sports Authority of India. We can’t help agree with Chand when she asserts:
What I have is natural. I have not doped. I don’t deserve the ban. This should never happen to another girl again.
Do read the complete article here to know more about Chand and her fight : yet another reminder of the many battles that working women wage every day across the world. May the force be with Dutee Chand, and may the tribe of women brave enough to challenge prejudices live long and prosper!
Also check out our series on 32 countries, 32 women to discover a bunch of remarkable women from the World Cup playing nations.
Image courtesy: Orisports