Friday, June 5

Gender, Jenner, and equity in sports

In all of the media hubbub over Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover, it occurred to me that one issue that has barely made a ripple: will Jenner's Olympic medal be stripped?

The IOC said, in short and with little fanfare or media coverage, of course not.

Jon Stewart skewered the media frenzy over Jenner's appearance, noting that when Jenner was "a man" [sic] people talked about Jenner's athletic achievements, but now (out as a woman)... looks are the only thing that matters to the media. Critics of Stewart's criticism note that Jenner was always a woman. But in 1976, Jenner competed in men's events - as Bruce - in the Montreal Olympics.

Now, before we go any farther, I want to state clearly and for the record that I truly believe Jenner deserves to keep the Olympic medal. I concur wholeheartedly with the IOC decision. (But I do quibble with the IOC verbage that Jenner "won his" medal. The proper language now would be "won her," and there was really no need to use a gender pronoun at all. Better text would be "Jenner won the gold medal..." end of story. But I digress...)

What irks me actually has nothing to do with Caitlyn Jenner at ALL.

What irks me is how this "of course the record stands" non-issue highlights the flagrant gender double standard applied to female athletes.

South African track star Caster Semenya was at the center of a gender identity firestorm that all but ruined her life when blood tests revealed elevated testosterone levels. She was subjected to humiliating, and ultimately nonsensical, tests to determine whether or not she "really was a woman" and thus allowed to compete in female events. She has now been cleared to race in women's events and will be back on the track for competitions this summer, but not without enduring years of struggle related to her gender identity.

And even more puzzling is that Paula Radcliffe had her marathon world record rescinded by the IAAF, retroactively, merely because she ran in a race in which men were also running. That ruling was later overturned, but only after months of public pressure (including complaints from giant corporations like Nike) against the IAAF. And the women-only rule applies forevermore in future marathons. So... girls only get a world record if they're running with other girls.

So... Jenner, a transgender woman, gets to keep an Olympic medal won in a men's event. Great. Jenner got to choose, compete, and keep a hard-won medal. Bravo!

Meanwhile cisgender women are subjected to ridiculous and unreliable testing (which can be misleading, inconclusive, or can simply highlight somewhat rare and shocking genetic traits that were previously unknown to the competitor) and unequitable standards (men get to race with "rabbits," but women can't, etc...) to determine their competitive status?

Sex (biological characteristics) and gender (psychological and social ones) are part of a continuum that involves lots of grey area in the middle. There are chromosomal, hormonal, physiological, psychological, and emotional factors that do not always fall neatly within XX and XY binary. Moreover, while much of the theory behind gender "testing" has been to "level the playing field," it seems the burden of proof falls mainly on women.

Perhaps it's time do do away with "men's" and "women's" events completely?

Maybe women should start playing in Major League Baseball?

Merge the NBA and WNBA?

Add an ultra-distance event to Olympic track and field, because distance levels the playing field among runners?

Make male gymnasts compete in the balance beam and women in pommel horse?

I don't claim to have the answers, but I think it's time to start a discussion about what athletic gender categories really mean... if anything at all.

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