The progress of women in sport has been handicapped, not by their own frailty or bodily deficiencies but by myths about their physical abilities. For nearly a century, women’s relative inferiority in sport was attributable to one thing: men. Unenlightened Victorian doctors perpetuated so many myths about the horrific effects of sport on the female body that women were dissuaded or simply prevented from competing on an even footing with men. (The British Medical Association didn’t accept female doctors until 1892.) In the 1920s and 1930s, research into hormonal differences perpetuated the dominant perception of women as fragile beings who were simply not physically or psychologically equipped for the strenuous effort competition demanded.
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It is only over the past 30 years that women have clawed their way into the upper echelons of sport. Britain’s Jane Crouch and the USA’s Gail Grandchamp were granted licenses to box professionally in 1994 and 1992 respectively. The Women’s National Basketball Association started in 1997. The professional Women’s United Soccer Association launched in 2001 in the US after the breakthrough FIFA Women’s World Cup of 1999. Women were warned for decades of the dangers of distance running, but in 1993, Wang Junxia broke the 30-minute record for 10,000, confirming that the “myth of frailty” was bogus.
Women now fight in mixed martial arts, play cricket, rugby and every other sport once considered a men-only affair. And yet three recent developments that might have been hailed as progressive in a different context are, as many see it, threatening to undermine women’s sport.
Earlier this month, 400-meter runner CeCé Telfer was ruled out of the US Olympic trials because she didn’t satisfy the conditions the track and field governing organization, World Athletics, established in its eligibility regulations for certain women’s events. Among those requirements was that female competitors’ testosterone levels had to be below 5 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months. Testosterone is the hormone that stimulates the development of male secondary sexual characteristics and which some believe confers a physical advantage in sports.
While there is evidence to support this, competitive success rests on motivation, confidence, attention focus and other non-physical attributes, as sport psychologists often remind us.
Telfer had previously competed in men’s events. She was assigned as male at birth but transitioned to female and, in 2019, won a National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s title. Within days of the Telfer decision, New Zealand announced its Olympic team that included Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter who, like Telfer, was born a man and also transitioned. In her case, she did fulfill eligibility requirements and has done so since 2015. Injury prevented her from competing in the 2016 games.
We have become accustomed to athletes who have transitioned from male to female and the understandable obstacles they face in trying to reintegrate into sports. So it was unusual when Kumi Yokoyama, a football player in the US National Women’s Soccer League, recently pronounced, “In the future, I want to quit soccer and live as a man.” They (Yokoyama’s preferred pronoun) played for Japan in the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France and, as far as we know, were assigned a female gender at birth. Female-to-male transitions in sport are rarer and less controversial, although a player who identifies as male but who competes in a woman’s league as Yokoyama does may yet prompt deliberation.
End of Women’s Sport?
It’s easy to appreciate why so many women (and a few men) in and outside of sport are upset. As they see it, women have spent a century fighting to crush the sobriquet of “the weaker sex” and establish a presence in elite sport. No sooner have they clinched what appeared to be a victory that they find their competitions filling up with women who used to be men, women who wish to be known as men and women who were born men allowed to compete as women but are now excluded because they have too much testosterone.
It must feel like winning a tough three-set tennis match only to be told by the umpire that the rules have changed and it’s now a best-of-five game. Hubbard’s inclusion, in particular, “is the beginning of the end of women’s sport,” according to Julie Blindel of The Spectator. She should probably have added, “as we know it.” The change does not seem terminal, at least not to me. But, for sure, the landscape of women’s sport is changing noticeably.
Biological males have been competing in women’s events at least since the 1920s, when Mary Weston, a British shot-putter and javelin thrower, won all manner of competitions. Upon retiring, Weston changed his name to Mark and married a woman. In 1936, Dora Ratjen, a German high jumper, competed at the Olympic Games and was later declared to be an anatomical male. At the same tournament, Polish runner Stanisława Walasiewicz, aka Stella Walsh, was regarded with suspicion; she was shot in the US in 1980 and her autopsy revealed “ambiguous” sexual features. There are several other examples of men — either masquerading as women or living their lives naively as women without realizing their sexual identities — who have competed against women in organized sports.
The case that brought the transgender issue to prominence was that of Renee Richards, who played tennis as Richard Raskins before undergoing gender reassignment surgery, then resuming her tennis career on the women’s circuit. The United States Tennis Association insisted that Richards should take a test to determine her sex. In 1977, the New York Supreme Court ruled that this demand was “grossly unfair, discriminatory, and inequitable, and violative of her rights.”
Following the Richards controversy, a Canadian mountain bike racer Michelle (formerly Michael) Dumaresq competed as a female for Canada at the World Championships, having undergone reassignment surgery in 1996. This sparked debate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and, in 2003, its medical director Patrick Schamasch announced: “We will have no discrimination … the IOC will respect human rights … after certain conditions have been fulfilled, the athlete will be able to compete in his or her new sex.” The “conditions” related to the length of hormone treatment and timing of surgery.
While the IOC’s approach at the time seemed inclusive and in sync with the times, transitioning, as the reassignment process is now known, was set to become more prevalent. Gender dysphoria was included by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980 and so became a legitimate, treatable medical condition. As well as surgery, hormone therapy can be prescribed, although in recent years a more subjective response has also been recognized. Self-identification became a means of attributing sexual characteristics to oneself.
This effectively blurred the conventional distinction between sex and gender, the former once considered the physical categories of male and female, the latter the social and cultural differences conventionally ascribed to those categories. Once the traditional sexual binary of male and female came under scrutiny, we effectively denatured sex, making it possible to choose how we wished to be known, addressed, treated and, generally, thought of. We brought sex under our volition, adapting it in a way that made it shapeable. Now, sex is practically indistinguishable from and even interchangeable with gender.
Criminal justice systems, educational institutions, the armed forces and most other areas of society have made accommodations to the disappearing sexual binary. In recent weeks, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s announced that it will allow staff who identify as women, even those assigned male at birth, to use its female washrooms. A prominent independent school in London substituted the term “head girl” for the nonbinary “learners.”
Sport is different. Its history is predicated on the myth of frailty, and its entire structure has developed in a way that reflects this. Only in a minority of events are women allowed to compete with and against men. For the most part, sports are segregated. The policy most in harmony with cultural trends, particularly that of gender fluidity, is to welcome people who presently consider themselves women, no matter what their background may be. After all, the salutary reminder that served feminism so well in the 1970s and beyond was that “biology is not destiny.”
Historically, women have been denied the right to own property, vote, keep their own income, be educated, serve in the military or in politics, or participate in dozens of other pursuits that men have controlled. In a sense, natural-born women have a right to be angry over transgender women. “Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman,” is how Michelle Goldberg of The New Yorker sums up one position. Women haven’t been gifted their rights — they’ve fought for them. This is especially true in sport.
So what happens next? One by one, sports will broach the subject and find a way of including transgender competitors in the events that reflect their present sexual identity — in other words, what sex they consider they are. Some sports that have already made adjustments and modified eligibility rules will probably maintain them for the time being. Others will find such rules unnecessarily awkward. Others still will struggle to find an accommodation. But all sports will admit transgender competitors, no matter how hard and for how long objectors protest their inclusion.
This is an unwinnable fight, and the longer it persists, the more protesters risk being derided as transphobic and out of touch. Sport’s rainbow laces are gratifying symbols of oneness, but in practical terms, its diverse, incongruous, even adversarial elements make sport a twisted, confused entanglement that will be difficult, if not impossible, to unknot.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.