Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Gender of Second

Mariya Savinova and Caster Semenya
When Caster Semenya raced from last to second in the final stretch of the women's 800 meters, some wondered is she aimed for silver. She has a turbo drive of a kick - if she'd engaged it sooner she might have taken gold. Maybe.

Second guessing someone who comes in second is a strange thing. This isn't to say that the thought didn't occur to me. It was being fed to us all by BBC commentators who wondered how someone with that much "in the tank" could wait so long to use it.

Semenya looks different from her competitors. When she switches from running really fast to her full sprint, it's hard to miss her singularity. Her strength and her power make her simply magnificent to watch.

Like Semenya, Mo Farah spent much of his last race (10,000m) at the back of the pack. As they fought their way forward, he and his training partner (Galen Rupp) had to work hard to avoid being boxed in. The back of the pack is safe in that regard but dangerous in others. You have to know your kick and everyone else's.

Maybe Semenya was working the same strategy and kicked too late. The 800 is a war of strategy and speed. There isn't time to hide.

The Olympic final was a very fast race. Mariya Savinova won in 1:56.19. The Russian looked amazing from start to finish. She won with nearly a second to spare. She very nearly wept on the podium when they played her country's anthem. She ran 1:55.87 at the 2011 World Championships.

The year Semenya became the object of global scrutiny, the year she was sandbagged into what can best be described as a medical rape, she ran 1:55.45. It was the fastest 800 run by any woman in 2009 and the fifth fastest ever. Just over a half a second faster than Savinova's 2011 race. She moved up early, stayed with the leaders and then kicked coming out of the last turn, as one does.

She won that 2009 race by a huge margin. She stood out. She looked like no one else. It looked easy.

When Usain Bolt runs, it looks like he is from a different planet. Some place in the Jamaican Galaxy. His stride is noticeably longer than that of his competitors. He's freakishly tall for a runner. He's different. A man apart. His exceptionalism makes him into a god. It is not in conflict with his masculinity. In fact, his is a standard. All men who sprint are measured against him. In fact, all people who sprint measure themselves against him. He is the fastest person.

One of my nieces has had a poster of Bolt taped to the wall over her bed since the 2008 Olympics. She's a runner.

When Joan Benoit won the first marathon that women were allowed to run at the Olympics, she broke away from the pack early. She was on her own. She clocked in at 2:24:52. Until 1952, the men's world record was slower than that. If she'd run that time in the 1984 men's Olympic marathon she'd have placed 52nd - about two-thirds of the way back into the pack. But of course, if she'd been running with people faster than her, she'd probably have run faster.

Unlike celebrated world marathons, men and women are forced to run completely separate races at the Olympics. They run in "women-only" and "men-only" races.

Not so long ago, the IAAF created a new rule. No times run by women in races that include men count as a women's record unless women are given such a huge head start that no man could possibly race with them. This new rule would invalidate the world marathon record set by Paula Radcliff. Graciously, the IAAF has let it stand as a record for women running "mixed" marathons.

In "mixed" marathons, officials now see men as illegal pace-setters. In this view, male "pace-setters" (meaning here, simply other runners who are faster than the fastest woman) give women an unnatural advantage. A woman who runs faster when she runs alongside the fastest runners in the world has betrayed her sex.

Women must not run raster than women can run.

Women can't run faster then men.

A woman who breaks from the pack isn't doping. She's a man.

Or she is running with men.

One man can run with longer legs than everyone else. Another can run with prosthetics. But a woman can't run in her own body. 


The new IOC gender testing policy mirrors this ideology - defining women by what they must not have or be - by marking testosterone levels as the border it defends against women's exceptional capacities.

Women, now, will be tested for their testosterone levels. Too much (and what that level might be hasn't actually been clearly identified) and she can't compete.

A woman's capacity must be limited. It must be fixed by removing whatever excess officials have latched onto. Men in the race. Maleness in her body. She must be produced as castrated.

In an article for the June 2012 issue of American Journal of Bioethics, scholars condemn the new policy on multiple grounds.
The current scientific evidence...does not support the notion that endogenous testosterone levels confer athletic advantage in any straightforward or predictable way. Even if naturally occurring testosterone levels confer athletic advantage, is that advantage unfair? It bears noting that athletes never begin on a fair playing field; if they were not exceptional in one regard or another, they would not have made it to a prestigious international athletic stage. Athletic excellence is the product of a complex entanglement of biological factors and material resources that have the potential to influence athletic advantage. However, the IAAF and IOC target testosterone as the most important factor in contributing to athletic advantage. The policies seek to do the impossible: isolate androgen from other possible biological factors and material resources to determine that the impact that it alone, in the form of testosterone, has on athletic advantage. ("Out of Bounds: A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes")
They conclude:
Considerations of fairness support an approach that allows all legally recognized females to compete with other females, regardless of their hormonal levels, provided their bodies naturally produce the hormones.
And then proceed to embrace the contradictions that such a policy will bring on. (Different countries define women differently.)


When I was a child "women's lib" and the Equal Rights Amendment were much in the news. Shirley Chisolm was running for president. My parents hosted National Organization of Women meetings in our living room. I pinned an "ERA NOW!" button to whatever I wore to school.

This meant that I got into a lot of arguments with my classmates. Almost always with boys who wanted me to admit the men are faster/smarter/stronger than women. That ERA button was a red flag I waved before little bulls.

I was reminded of this schoolyard training for the junior feminist at a public forum on gender testing in sports. A local radio station invited me to join a panel to talk about the case of Caster Semenya and the recent changes in the IOC's gender testing policy.

All three of the panelists came from feminist and anti-homophobic perspectives - in principal and in practice all three of us are opposed to gender policing. But there was a moment when I felt baited by the one man on the panel, when he tried to engage me in an argument about how men are faster/stronger than women - how the fastest man is stronger than the fastest woman and therefore men and women's sports must be absolutely distinct from each other.

Now, he said this after I'd already indicated that I opposed gender policing and gender segregation in sports. If he was goading me I'd certainly offered myself to be goaded.

But when he put that bit of gendered common sense into play ("the fastest man...") I called him out for baiting me. I couldn't respond to the issue lightly.

This post is not about what gender is faster.

This post is about what gender is given to us, over and over again, as second. It is about all the work we do to make sure that women and men can be told apart from each other, to perpetuate the fiction that male and female are "opposites."

I am protesting a system that produces "female" as a debility.

That is what a policy forcing exceptional women to take a hormone suppressant is: The production of the fiction that women are quantitatively and qualitatively less than men.


A policy that negates the accomplishments of a woman runner because she ran alongside a man is ludicrous and offensive. It is ludicrous because every runner except the one in front is being paced.

It is offensive to deny women the opportunity to be paced by the fastest runners in the world. It is, plain and simple, discrimination. That kind of rule should be against the law.

Men and women should run the marathon together. They just should. Why not have men and women compete with and against each other, as they do in the best events in the world? Why not embrace the fact that it will make the women run faster?


Every elite runner runs against the history of running. It's the difference between a race and a game. A race and a routine.

In their minds, women around the world will run with Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. This takes nothing away from Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Tirunish Dibaba. Surely they run with them too. Surely, as members of an imagined community of athletes, we run with each other.

Caster Semenya reminds me of Usain Bolt.

I want Caster Semenya to lope like him across the finish so far ahead of the pack she makes everyone else look like they are standing still. I want her to avenge the idea that what a woman can do should be limited by some notion of what a man is.

But last night Semenya wasn't our avenging angel. Last night she was Mariya Savinova. She's a ropey figure. More like Farah than Bolt.

As they played her country's anthem Savinova fought back tears of joy. And Caster Semenya looked just as she did when she crossed the finish line. After nearly a year out of the sport and in the headlines, she seemed relaxed - happy to be on the track and pleased as punch with being second.


  1. "the fiction that women are quantitatively and qualitatively less than men."

    Okay, then, let's get rid of sexual segregation in the Olympics entirely and just have one set of track and field events, one set of swimming, etc. If women qualify, awesome. If they don't, too bad.

  2. I don't understand this piece. "A woman's capacity must be limited. It must be fixed by removing whatever excess officials have latched onto. Men in the race. Maleness in her body. She must be produced as castrated." What are you talking about?

    If a strong male runner had a sex-change op and became a woman for legal purposes and then proceeded to beat all women in sports events, would that be fair on women?

    The whole piece assumes that what a woman 'is' (and what a man 'is') is clear: "A policy that negates the accomplishments of a woman runner because she ran alongside a man is ludicrous and offensive."

    For the vast mass of cases it is clear enough. For a tiny number of cases it isn't.

    Of those, an even tinier number end up as senior sportspeople. As long as we have separate events and standards for men and women (as women themselves seem to demand) we need working definitions. Lines have to be drawn to make the relevant distinctions work, ultimately arbitrarily.

    This may create some apparent injustice for those very few who end up on the (for them) 'wrong' side of the distinction, but it surely preserves a wider fairness for everyone else.

  3. Caster Semenya is a woman. She was removed from competition for 10 months because she was fast.

    We don't know for sure, but the IAAF may be forcing her to take hormone suppressants to race.

    There is NO SCIENCE backing up this measure - please read the article I've mentioned here. The Journal of Bioethics thinks it is important enough that they've made that article available for free.

    The IAAF and the IOC now says it will apply this practice to all women who they find have too much testosterone in their bodies.

    Usain bolt lopes across the finish line - sure, he's tested for doping as all winners are. But do people cry "he's not a man!" because he's faster than other men? What about men who have high testosterone levels? Why not put a ceiling on that? (I am not advocating for this - it's just wrong.)

    Something naturally in these women's bodies is being medically suppressed so they can compete. This is a medical production of women as castrated - a medical theater supporting the fiction that women are missing something.

    I mean, why not subject ALL athletes for their natural hormone levels - and make them all have the same levels? (This would be absurd, completely wrong.)


    It's just plain sexist and wrong.

    I actually only published the above comment to make my point more clear.

    The medical drawing of lines across people bodies with invasive medical procedures - that's a frankly cruel - I'd say fascist - practice. And the fact that people accept this in order to enforce an arbitrary and medically, scientifically unsound standard of gender difference just shows how well this ideological system works on us all.

    These new policies are directed at cases where "things" are "unclear" - this will extend the brutal policing of female athletes who wear their hair short, have broad shoulders, who are lesbians, who are stronger than their competitors, who carry themselves with some swagger - policies like this encourage the violation of their bodily integrity. They support the worst forms of gender policing and homophobia.

    The ethicists recommend allowing people legally recognized as men and women to compete as such, and play things out from there - recognizing that these legal definitions are provisional. Seems reasonable enough to me.

  4. Thanks for making your point more clear, Jennifer.

    I find these incredibly fascinating and compelling topics to explore, and want to continue to hear and talk more about where the definitions of gender truly exist in biology and culture. More and more I see these roles and definitions as culturally determined. I know biology and chemistry play a role, but to untangle that from our cultural prejudices is the task I am most interested in.

    Again, great analysis and critique!

  5. I was a little strong in the above comment. I do understand where people's questions are coming from. And when I started this blog, I think I too thought "well, the line will be drawn somewhere" - but as soon as you start looking at it, you see that actually, the line is already drawn by how people identify, by a lifetime of participating in the world as a woman. And that these policies have no basis in science at all - that they exist to support a very very problematic idea of what a woman is. Or rather, is not.

    1. Jennifer you are correct. As someone who was directly involved - As well come to know dozens of women who have been terribly hurt, humiliated and raped as Caster was by anti-doping officials. The impact of gender testing on women last a life time. Moreover it is fascinating to watch the media and speculation that was done by society and media, of now of which was in-fact true about Caster or otherwise. What has happened and as history has shown over the last 5 decades, this is an issue of society, having nothing to do with competitive ability/performance. Caster's situation had nothing to do with performance at all. Solely of what she looked liked, and that this was a problem of the IOC/IAAF - ending up being issues of human rights, discrimination and rape. But still which is fascinating to watch, the media and public still remark on Caster and not either the IOC/IAAF. Never questioning them, making it acceptable for them to do this, and more scary empower them to feel they even have a right to do it. Human nature is amazing, and we are own worst enemies. I can assure you all published about Caster is in-fact Untrue, and is an incredible and courageous young woman. Saturday's result was fabulous, thinking 3 years prior, she would never run again let alone compete.

    2. Thank you for this. It is nice to get a comment from someone tuned into the humanity of the athlete.

      At the public forum I mention I was asked to explain "intersex" - and it was funny because the moderator didn't seeme prepared for my response - there isn't just one kind, gender is very complicated all the time and intersexed people just body forth that complexity differently - and that term does not explain Caster Semenya's case - her biology is not our business, and everytime we stage a conversation about her body we produce an echo of the violation of her body by IOC/IAAF officials.

      Some people want an easy answer, which flies in the face of everything they've ever experienced about their own bodies and their own gender, no?

    3. Thank-you for your kind comment. For me and fellow colleagues engaged in this matter, it cam e to great relief on saturday, moreover for me personally an end to many years of work and commitment. I was relieved for her, at the same time clearly underlines the problem of sport accessibility for women. We all have different biology, and in-fact if we are honest with ourselves, we are all intersexed. What we are seeing here is the "man-made" concept of a 2poled sexed society which sport mimics, and is the problem. We are trying to take nature and force nature into a convenient box as one or the the other. We do this only to women and with horrific consequences to the athlete. We've done this backwards, the athlete, intersex etc is not the problem as the IOC/IAAF is conveniently suggesting. It is they who who is the problem, first not understanding nature and building policy around it. We are trying force to fit a square peg into a round whole, and the friction and impact is what we are seeing because of it. The IOC has failed horribly, as their focus is NOT women's sport. The IOC is a sport marketing firm, and the "franchise" of the Olympic games is now 4 Billion dollars noted by Rogge. This is about money and power, and what sells at the box office. It is primarily mens sport, and femininity. So this is what they are focused in controlling, as that is the entire purpose of the "Hyperandrogenism Rule", nothing to do with performance whatsoever. Through the ruling is filled with problems, it is primarily designed for the IOC to fight of any litigation brought on by other athletes. Again nothing to deal with issues of "competitive performance and or intersex".... That is part of the IOC's propaganda, and appeal to the public like they are doing something to protect women's sport. Where in-fact, the TRUTH, the IOC is the biggest violator of female athletes, and in-fact are the biggest threat, not the athletes. Again, this is all about POWE, MONEY AND CONTROL - Not what the media has projected. Sadly, knowing many of the women as I do, so many fallen so horrifically because of the IOC.

    4. RIGHT ON. So glad we've connected!

    5. My apologies for my type "O's".... I hope this helps. Your piece you have written is right on, and on of the more factual and well thought out pieces of work I have seen in quite while. Thank-you for doing this. It is well done!

  6. When I brought up Semenya in class, I was impressed by how much it pushed students either to start thinking and look for square one or to resist thinking altogether.

    We may be disturbed if a country's president declared a male athlete a woman strictly in order to mess with a competition. We could have an interesting discussion why.

    We should look for a good reason to have a separate women's field--entertainment and promotion of multiple images of excellence. There are many reasons to look at Jessica Ennis or Allyson Felix and my television would be poorer without their events. I also enjoyed attending WPS matches just because the scale made more sense to me. The idea that these athletes ought to enter the Sportsworld if they are to be considered virtuous is just weird.

    Pistorius and Semenya make the games more interesting. The "Women's" category should be seen as a "diversity" category in order to bring as many different body types to the field. If a government considers someone female or anything besides male, sports should welcome them in.

  7. Always great to hear from Murfmensch!


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