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What condition, if any, does Caster Semenya have?
September 7, 2010 10:18 AM   Subscribe

What’s Caster Semenya’s diagnosis? According to somebody who isn’t a doctor, let alone Semenya’s doctor, the reputed intersex track phenom (previously) “has what’s called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.” At least, such is the declaration of Kristen Worley, an MTF transsexual cyclist. (The IAAF cleared Semenya to compete in July 2010, but vowed to keep medical details private.)

Worley isn’t done yet! How do we bungle a problem like Semenya? “[W]e throw her into stirrups and virtually rape her. We did that because of the way her face looks and her voice.”
posted by joeclark (66 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Diane Cummins: If we give an honest opinion, we’re either seen as bad sports or we’re not happy because we’re being beaten. But that’s not the case.

Give me a break. If you were winning, you'd have no beef at all. Meanwhile, you're 36 and Caster Semenya is 19. GEE, I WONDER WHY SHE'S FASTER THAN YOU.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:33 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Previously, extensively.
posted by availablelight at 10:34 AM on September 7, 2010


“(IOC president) Jacques Rogge said to me a couple of years ago from his office in Lausanne ‘Kristen, this is a medical problem.’ I said ‘Mr. Rogge, this is a social problem.’ I emailed him a few weeks ago (after Semenya was reinstated) ‘I guess I was right, huh.’”

Heh.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 10:38 AM on September 7, 2010


What’s Caster Semenya’s diagnosis?

None of our fucking business IMNSHO.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:41 AM on September 7, 2010 [22 favorites]


We will continue to see these sorts of situations so long as Olympic committees and game commissions feel it vitally necessary to know what goes on in people's bodies and we segregate competitions by (sex/gender/whatever). Eliminate one or more of those and this will vanish. I am not placing any value on these one way or another, merely pointing out that these two pushes intersect in this peculiar manner.
posted by adipocere at 10:47 AM on September 7, 2010


Eliminate one or more of those and this will vanish.

Right, but if the gender segregation of track is eliminated, then female participation in track and many other sports is effectively eliminated.

For instance, the world record holder for women's 100m would not even qualify for men's 100m.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:59 AM on September 7, 2010 [9 favorites]


I don't know if female athletes would welcome having to compete against men - and non-drug-tested ones at that.

This doesn't strike me as a situation requiring drastic remedies. What percentage of female athletes have difficulty establishing their gender to the governing body of their sport?
posted by Joe Beese at 11:00 AM on September 7, 2010


Why not have two categories in each event: "Women's", with strict rules about who can compete (e.g. XX and no unusual hormonal circumstances), and "Unlimited", with no gender/sex restrictions.
posted by The Tensor at 11:04 AM on September 7, 2010


What percentage of female athletes have difficulty establishing their gender to the governing body of their sport?

I'd imagine after this it will grow a little, if the chance of stripping a competitor (or even just humiliating them in public) is offered by an official body. Unless you get everyone to confirm their sex to the organisations satisfaction before a race, there's no way this is going to be fair in future.

So for that reason the OC better decide what it thinks is a female athlete and clarify it. Not that it's so easy.
posted by shinybaum at 11:06 AM on September 7, 2010


It should be noted that the whole thing is a relic of Cold War paranoia that Soviet Block countries would do anything to win gold medals including giving male athletes a sex change. As far as I know, this threat never materialized largely because transitioning is not a trivial matter.

I'm not certain that we need to integrate most sporting events. But we shouldn't be treating exceptional people as cheaters either.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:08 AM on September 7, 2010


Why not have two categories in each event: "Women's", with strict rules about who can compete (e.g. XX and no unusual hormonal circumstances), and "Unlimited", with no gender/sex restrictions.

Why not? For one reason, "Woman" != "XX and no unusual hormonal circumstances."
posted by m@f at 11:09 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, all the speculation about her condition is really creeping me the hell out.

Seriously thinking about this number of people speculating about my genitals is horrible, horrible. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

I wish people would just leave her alone and talk about any political/regulatory implications without dragging her (and her body) back into public discussion.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:13 AM on September 7, 2010


"Women's", with strict rules about who can compete (e.g. XX and no unusual hormonal circumstances),

This doesn't make any sense. You can learn more about why by reading Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes by Gerald N. Callahan PhD.

For one example, people born with XY chromosomes but androgen insensitivity would appear conventionally female. With the exception of bearing children, they'd be able to interact socially as females without any issue.
posted by odinsdream at 11:14 AM on September 7, 2010


Threeway Handshake, you'll notice I didn't suggest eliminating one or more of these rules as an overall solution. Remove the divide and you have the men (pick your definition) dominating the field in any number of events. Remove physical examination of, well, anything and you start a brand new race of corporate sponsored enhancements, with some very disposable athletes at the end of it, bodies damaged and altered in ways medical science will have never seen before. Either one opens up fresh new issues.

It's most definitely a head-scratcher.

A chilly, exploratory portion of my mind would be very interested in just what would happen if athletes could alter their bodies in whatever non-obvious fashion they desired, with the full weight of corporate sponsorship. Given the relative youth of the people involved in many competitions, though, they would hardly have the judgment to understand that, even if they did win, a given athlete's earnings would probably be instantly consumed by the kind of health care required after the corporate sponsorship days are over.
posted by adipocere at 11:16 AM on September 7, 2010


For one example, people born with XY chromosomes but androgen insensitivity would appear conventionally female. With the exception of bearing children, they'd be able to interact socially as females without any issue.

And they would compete in "Unlimited". Which has no limits!
posted by The Tensor at 11:19 AM on September 7, 2010


I'm going to take a possibly contrarian position here on two counts: segregating sports by gender is good for women; society does have a vested interest in Semenya's diagnosis and in what goes on in people's bodies.

1) Gender segregation allows women to compete in sports to a degree that would be simply unattainable, if women and men competed together. In most sports even mediocre male athletes perform at a much higher level than very good female athletes. Taking down the gender barrier would, in effect, be the same as simply banning women from participating in sports. However, I do not think that the barrier should be absolute; women that are good enough to compete in mail sport should be permitted to "play with the big boys." So, gender segregation should be a semi-permeable barrier that allows women to move into male teams/sports but not vice-versa. Perhaps, eventually, we will achieve performance parity in some sports. In those cases there should, of course, be no gendered segregation.

2) We have a vested interest in the status and challenges faced by persons like Semenya because without such examples we will never progress beyond our current prejudices. We can't adapt our cultural institutions to fit the needs of all persons if we avoid open and frank discussions of the status and needs of all persons. I don't see how we can correct the hurdles that Semenya (and others) face if we are unwilling to be open about those hurdles. Does this mean that some persons may face unusual even intrusive levels of scrutiny? Unfortunately yes, but this is the realistic cost of advancement.
posted by oddman at 11:21 AM on September 7, 2010


Why not? For one reason, "Woman" != "XX and no unusual hormonal circumstances."

Feel free to propose your own criteria.
posted by The Tensor at 11:21 AM on September 7, 2010


For instance, the world record holder for women's 100m would not even qualify for men's 100m.

Maybe then we should look for sports that aren't quite so much foregone physiological conclusions, rather than nerf them by creating arbitrary restrictions on who can compete that always seem to break down nastily in edge cases.

The logical conclusion of sports that are determined almost wholly by physiological characteristics rather than skill or training is something like a human version of the Westminster Dog Show. Even if it's a showcase of more-or-less naturally occurring genetic diversity rather than creepy selective breeding, it doesn't seem any more inspiring.

Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport, and certainly one that sends a profoundly negative message to young people.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:26 AM on September 7, 2010


Given that sex is a spectrum and that people on the male end of the spectrum have, at the margins, a huge physical advantage in this particular sport, you have two options: Eliminate the sex division and effectively destroy female competition, or establish arbitrary rules that tell when someone is no longer able to participate in the "female" class based on some arbitrary markers somewhere along that spectrum.

It gets gross when someone like Semenya is clearly close to where that arbitrary line should probably fall, which is why the governing bodies need to get their shit together and draw those arbitrary (but measurable and testable) lines without thinking about this particular athlete and then see which side of the line she falls on. There will be cases where there are athletes with extremely weird body chemistry that are too "masculine" (I mean this biologically, not whether or not they wear make-up) but not strong enough to compete among elite males, which sucks, but not everyone is short enough to be an astronaut.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:26 AM on September 7, 2010


"Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport,"

Actually in sports like football (American, and association), baseball, basketball, track, etc. the percentage of people with insufficient genetic gifts is probably around 90% or more. Most men don't have the genetic heritage to be a linebacker in the NFL no matter their training regimen.
posted by oddman at 11:33 AM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport, and certainly one that sends a profoundly negative message to young people.

This is absurd. Take away the sports that are by your definition shitty, and we'd be left with what sports exactly? You are arguing against the entire idea of sports.

Citius, Altius, Fortius
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:34 AM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Everyone should just have to compete naked, like in the old days.
posted by sciurus at 11:36 AM on September 7, 2010


and "Unlimited", with no gender/sex restrictions.

Uh, this is what we have now in a lot of cases. What people call "men's" sports is usually open to anyone, it's just that no women have managed to be good enough to play at the highest levels. I guarantee you that if a woman came up through the system who could throw 102 mph fastballs with accuracy you'd see her in pro ball.

Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport,

Anything which depends on physical prowess (which is what "sports" are) will segregate between the sexes at the highest levels. You're essentially arguing for the elimination of what we know of as sports.

Can you name a sport which you don't consider shitty? As in, one in which men and women compete on an equal footing at the highest levels? Please do not say "ski jumping" or I will hit myself in the face with a mallet.
posted by Justinian at 11:36 AM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Kadin2048, I think it's more of a function of the fact that we are talking about world-wide events. A couple of thousand years ago, each one of us in our little village of a hundred-odd people would be special in some fashion. The best storyteller, the fastest runner, the tallest, the prettiest, the one with the great memory, and so forth.

Now the best storyteller out of a hundred people goes unread on some fanfic site. The fastest runner could not go to state. The tallest in the hamlet is hardly even remarkable at a reasonably-sized concert. The prettiest would be laughed at if she approached a modeling agency. The most handsome man could not manage a walk-by in a commercial. And so forth. We're competing against six-plus-billion people and the vast hustling majority of us are unremarkable against such a broad scope. By the time you're at the Olympic level, most people are recipients of some very unlikely combination of genes.

It's not the sport that does it so much as how refined the cream is that rises to the top of a very, very large bucket of milk.
posted by adipocere at 11:37 AM on September 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


0xFCAF: The problem is, in this case, that the line was initially drawn at "won a few races while not girly enough." And then after the athlete was the subject of a scandal in which her honesty and identity were called into question, it turns out she qualified after all. This is something that should have been determined before she took to the blocks rather than threatening to revoke a prize.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The logical conclusion of sports that are determined almost wholly by physiological characteristics rather than skill or training

World records in every track and field event continue to be broken year after year - the top 10 100m finishes were all in the last 20 years. It's impossible that a genetic physiological shift in the human race is responsible for this. The science of sports training continues to improve and surprise us, and athletes are training harder than ever. You might be surprised just how bad we were at training even 50 years ago - for example, it's a modern development to let cyclists sleep in air conditioned rooms during the Tour de France. Imagine the edge those guys got.

Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in...

I'd seriously challenge you to name (or even invent) a sport where genetic makeup isn't a critical part of success at elite levels. For any physical activity, your distribution of Type I / IIa // IIb muscle fibers is going to determine if you can succeed in sprint-type events or marathon-type events. The tendon insertion point will determine if you can make extremely strong movements or extremely quick ones. The list goes on and on.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:39 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport, and certainly one that sends a profoundly negative message to young people.

The fact that not everyone is physically equal can be seen as a "profoundly negative message", yes, but it is also an iron-clad consequence of being physical beings in a physical universe. Lying to ourselves about this is far more "profoundly negative" than the alternative -- it leads to a denial not just of what we can do, but of what we are.

Like it or not, genetics matters. In fact, I think it's bizarre to suggest that sports are bad because they're "determined almost wholly by physiological characteristics rather than skill or training", while theoretical sports which depend on "skill" (and thus almost wholly on psychological characteristics like intelligence, reflexes, or spacial thinking) aren't. Genetics has an impact on those things, too... and at the extreme end of human capability, favorable genetics plus skill and training will always trump skill and training without favorable genetics.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Imagine the edge those guys got.

Right, their edge they get through this training and technology is measured with precision instruments and most often beyond the realm of human perception. This edge does not account for the gender gap.

For instance: The current women's world record is 4:12.56 by Svetlana Masterkova of Russia, set on August 14, 1996.

The women of 1996 have not yet caught the men of 1954.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:47 AM on September 7, 2010


When Michael Phelps had a good season with his genetic gifts, the response was, "gee that guy can swim fast."

When Caster Semenya had a good season with her genetic gifts, the response was, "she must be cheating."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:50 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Besides, "you're probably never going to win the Tour de France, so you'll just have to compete against yourself and the people around you, and strive to do better than you can today" isn't a negative message. It's the simple truth, and it's a truth that's repeated over and over again, in almost every human endeavor. We'd accomplish little or nothing if we limited ourselves to efforts which "50+% of the population could be remotely competitive in" -- that doesn't even describe the Tetris scoreboards on the Wii, much less real-world competition.
posted by vorfeed at 11:54 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not disputing that there's a gender gap (or that if Semenya passes whatever gender tests the governing bodies come up with, she should compete and people should STFU about her perceived unfemininity), just saying that genetics (within a gender) in no way account for the gains in human athletic performance over the past 100 (or even 20) years.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:58 AM on September 7, 2010


> Feel free to propose your own criteria.

I wish I could provide a simple, specific criteria that would fit in every instance. As said many times over, gender boundaries in sport is not just a genetic issue. There are plenty of social constructs in play as well. Whatever the fairest solution is will have to account for both genetic AND social issues.... and even then there will be those who feel cheated.

I'm glad the dialogue is happening - because what's happened to some individuals is more a disgrace to humanity than their impact would be participating in the sport.
posted by m@f at 12:03 PM on September 7, 2010


When Michael Phelps had a good season with his genetic gifts, the response was, "gee that guy can swim fast."

When Caster Semenya had a good season with her genetic gifts, the response was, "she must be cheating."


Not remotely the same circumstances. Phelps was a known quantity in the swimming world, with a long track of being very very good at swimming. Semenya appeared out of nowhere, with no history of being a good runner, and immediately started taking golds. That history would make people justifiably suspicious regardless of who was doing it.
posted by kafziel at 12:05 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


oddman: I guess I'm profoundly convinced that Semenya's medical condition is largely irrelevant given that the problems lie with the was the IAAF handled this issue:

1: Initiating an investigation based on both gains in performance (reasonable) and perceived femininity within the sport (dubious).

2: Violating their own rules by leaking information about a private investigation.

3: Threatening to enforce those rules retroactively based on a presumption of bad faith.

We don't need to know the details of Semenya's endocrinology to point out the flaws in how the IAAF handled the situation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:07 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


This topic is interesting to me because I feel like you often end up with many people arguing for policies which would produce results they would (rightfully) decry.

The end result of ending sex testing in the top levels of sports would not produce gender equality, it would produce an environment in which the great majority of women (those with XX chromosones and no medical conditions resulting in hugely skewed hormone levels) have absolute no chance of competing no matter how much effort and training they put in. I don't think that's a result anyway wants to see, is it?

The very poor handling of Semenya's case is a different issue, of course.
posted by Justinian at 12:15 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Kadin2048, elite sport is about winning and losing. It is not about making people feel equal, let alone good about themselves or nonshitty. Elite sport – which, after all, is the realm in which Semenya competes – is not grade-school soccer and is not a self-esteem-building exercise.
posted by joeclark at 12:15 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Additionally, there are a certain limited number of sports with few, if any, restrictions, including equestrian and archery, in the latter of which a woman in a wheelchair competed in the Olympics.
posted by joeclark at 12:19 PM on September 7, 2010


KJS, limited in this way to a rebuke about IAAF, you make a fine point. But even if the IAAF and IOC somehow magically became ethical institutions and corrected such abuses, we would still be left with the question of how to integrate the whole spectrum of human biology with the binary classification prevalent in sports, no?
posted by oddman at 12:26 PM on September 7, 2010


None of our fucking business IMNSHO.

No, it is. In the vast majority of sports women can not compete with men on equal terms. There are very few women in the world who could even qualify for the Olympics in the marathon if they had to meet the men's times. The women's WR in the 800m, Caster's distance, (set, btw, by a woman who was doped to the eyeballs), wouldn't crack the top 10,000 fastest times ever run by men.

It's difficult to imagine that the Caster Semenya situation could have been handled with less tact, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a legitimate problem here. Her competitors felt, with what appears to have been some justification, that Caster was not "entirely female". There was an investigation done, but the results aren't public. It's not clear what changes have been made (surgery? Hormone therapy? Nothing at all?). The athletes have been told "It's fixed. Don't ask any questions". They want to know what happened. What has been done? It may not be our business, but the women running against Caster have a right to feel confident that they are actually running against a woman and the IAAF is not cooperating in the slightest.

In one sense, however, the concern over Caster is misplaced. Pamela Jelimo is even faster (although she's had injury problems).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:26 PM on September 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport, and certainly one that sends a profoundly negative message to young people.

At the highest levels? No matter how hard they trained most people could not compete at the highest levels of competitive Starcraft. In any competition there is always going to be a top percentage and those are the people the world wants to watch.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:38 PM on September 7, 2010


oddman: But even if the IAAF and IOC somehow magically became ethical institutions and corrected such abuses, we would still be left with the question of how to integrate the whole spectrum of human biology with the binary classification prevalent in sports, no?

Sure, but we can explore those issues and where to draw that line without needing to demonize specific athletes for crimes they apparently did not commit.

Its Never Lurgi: It's difficult to imagine that the Caster Semenya situation could have been handled with less tact, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a legitimate problem here.

Sure there is, on the part of the IAAF that violated their own confidentiality guidelines. Competitors do not have a right to violate the medical privacy of their peers in the absence of actual cheating.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:48 PM on September 7, 2010


Most of the shooting sports seem to be, if not necessarily genetics-independent (which feeds into a nature/nurture tarpit that I'm not sure there's any good way out of) at least not so grossly dependent on physiology that you couldn't have one class of competitors. That male and female classes exist separately in most shooting sports seems to be mostly for historical reasons, not really because the field is tilted against women. I find it interesting that the shooting sports also regularly feature some of the oldest competitors you're likely to see in any elite sporting event.

Looking at the list of current summer Olympic sports — which is a poor starting place, since the Olympics are pretty skewed towards traditionally male-dominated sports from the get-go — all the equestrian sports look like good candidates for integration (or that, if there's a gender that matters, it's probably of the horse). The "judged" sports like trampoline gymnastics and synchronized swimming, where you're going more for style rather than time, seem like they wouldn't be terribly problematic. Archery obviously requires a lot of upper-body strength, and an average man could probably use a bow with a higher draw weight, but I'm not sure how or whether that translates into any sort of distinct advantage at typical target distances. (If you make the target close and the bullseye small, I don't see how it would.)

Most of the sailing events seem as though they could easily be held open, and the 470 class in fact was until 1988.* The decision to create a separate class for women and men encapsulates what I think is the problem: if it was perceived that the playing field was unequal, such that women weren't able to compete, than the obvious solution would seem to be to look at the event and fix it. Sports, particularly equipment-based sports, get tweaked all the time in order to produce a more interesting contest; breaking it into two separate events strikes me as laziness. (I.e., if the problem was that men, who on average weigh more, could get more weight hiked out over the rail, one solution might be to allow additional weight in the trapezes to bring each competitors 'hiked-out weight' up to some standard max. That's not a proposal, just an example.) Breaking into a men's and women's event might have seemed like an elegant solution at the time, but it's exactly that sort of lack of foresight that leads us into really ugly situations with chromosome testing and gynecological exams. The edge cases might not happen often, but when they do, they're really pretty sad all around.

But beyond specific sports, the argument for sex-segregation in sports sounds disturbingly similar to arguments for race-segregation in sports in the past: "if we didn't have a separate league, they'd {take over|be wiped out} in open competition!" Better to have an open competition, and figure out how to ensure the playing field is level if it's necessary, than to start off with separate ones as a premise.

* The 49er currently is held as an open event, although I'm not sure if that's because it's new and there's a limited number of competitors, or if it's because the design of the boat — which features one person at the helm at all times — is just more conducive to mixed teams.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:52 PM on September 7, 2010


Better to have an open competition, and figure out how to ensure the playing field is level if it's necessary

You're burying your head in the sand. Are you unaware that in most sports, including all of the most popular sports, we already have an open competition and nobody but men can compete at the top level? Because you seem to be unaware of that.
posted by Justinian at 1:02 PM on September 7, 2010


Looking at the list of current summer Olympic sports — which is a poor starting place

Caster Semenya is a summer Olympic athlete.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 1:09 PM on September 7, 2010


We will continue to see these sorts of situations so long as Olympic committees and game commissions feel it vitally necessary to know what goes on in people's bodies and we segregate competitions by (sex/gender/whatever). Eliminate one or more of those and this will vanish.
Uh, so would almost all females in sports. Caster Semenya couldn't compete with Usain Bolt
The logical conclusion of sports that are determined almost wholly by physiological characteristics rather than skill or training is something like a human version of the Westminster Dog Show. Even if it's a showcase of more-or-less naturally occurring genetic diversity rather than creepy selective breeding, it doesn't seem any more inspiring.

Any sport that depends so heavily on genetics that 50+% of the population could never, no matter what sort of grueling from-birth training regimen they possibly put themselves through, ever be remotely competitive in, is a shitty sport, and certainly one that sends a profoundly negative message to young people.
Well, people like Dog shows. Only a thin selection of humans is ever going to be 'in biological range' to compete in these kinds of events. And people like watching them. I think the idea of getting rid of sports so that no one feels inferior is kind of ridiculous. I'm not sure what you're talking about with this 'negative message to young people'. The vast majority of people could never hope to even qualify for the Olympics. Far more then 50%. Even if you can't qualify for the Olympics you can still do the sport for fun.

The fact of the matter is that men and women's bodies are different, and average women are just going to be weaker then average men. And the same thing is true about top-end men and women too.

Besides, the amount of training and effort that goes into being an Olympic athlete doesn't really even sound like much fun for most people anyway.

--
Uh, this is what we have now in a lot of cases. What people call "men's" sports is usually open to anyone, it's just that no women have managed to be good enough to play at the highest levels.
I don't think that's true in the Olympics. I read somewhere (actually I think it was a metafilter thread) that the record holder in the skijump was actually a woman, but she couldn't compete in the Olymics and there was no female division.
World records in every track and field event continue to be broken year after year - the top 10 100m finishes were all in the last 20 years. It's impossible that a genetic physiological shift in the human race is responsible for this.
Records go up because they can't go down. Even if everything were held even, records would gradually go up over time, slowly reaching an asymptotic ideal.
But beyond specific sports, the argument for sex-segregation in sports sounds disturbingly similar to arguments for race-segregation in sports in the past: "if we didn't have a separate league, they'd {take over|be wiped out} in open competition!"
Well, all you have to do is look at the different numbers for men and women's sports. It's pretty clear that women would just get knocked out of competition. It's not really a hypothetical.
posted by delmoi at 1:12 PM on September 7, 2010


and "Unlimited", with no gender/sex restrictions.

Uh, this is what we have now in a lot of cases. What people call "men's" sports is usually open to anyone, it's just that no women have managed to be good enough to play at the highest levels.

The sport I know best is Fencing, and according to my understanding this isn't the case in Olympic Fencing. Local competitions are generally organized as parallel "women's" and "open" tournaments (with a reasonable number of women competing in the opens), but for the events that lead up to the Olympics (or World Cups, I think), the categories are instead "women's" and "men's". When I asked about this, it was explained to me that events on the Olympic "track" had to be sex-segregated in the same way as the Olympics in order to qualify.
posted by The Tensor at 1:20 PM on September 7, 2010


I read somewhere (actually I think it was a metafilter thread) that the record holder in the skijump was actually a woman

(hits head with mallet, as promised)

It is true that the Olympics don't have a woman's ski jump event which is almost certainly based on sexism. (I don't know how popular women's ski jump is; it is vaguely possible that not enough women are interested in ski jumping for the category to make sense. But sexism is more likely). But you can't compare jump distances like that because women's ski jumping is not the same as men's ski jumping. It's like comparing driving distances in golf but with women hitting the ball from 30 yards forward of the men's tee.
posted by Justinian at 1:21 PM on September 7, 2010


astics and synchronized swimming, where you're going more for style rather than time, seem like they wouldn't be terribly problematic. Archery obviously requires a lot of upper-body strength, and an average man could probably use a bow with a higher draw weight, but I'm not sure how or whether that translates into any sort of distinct advantage at typical target distances.

As an archer I can confirm this. I'd love to do a higher draw weight because I hunt, but for target shooting at normal distances it doesn't really matter.
posted by melissam at 1:23 PM on September 7, 2010


Tensor: If we strictly limit ourselves to the Olympics it is true that there is a bunch of direct (as opposed to de facto) sex segregation. But the most popular sports are not Olympic sports. I was referring to things like football (association) and football (American), ice hockey, basketball, cricket, baseball, and so on. Those sports are generally open to anyone and are only segregated through the equivalent of natural selection.
posted by Justinian at 1:24 PM on September 7, 2010


I'd love to do a higher draw weight because I hunt, but for target shooting at normal distances it doesn't really matter.

Strength actually does matter in sports like archery, darts, etc. Not as much as in something like football but it does matter. More upper body strength gives you finer motor control, and fine motor control is directly helpful.
posted by Justinian at 1:26 PM on September 7, 2010


FWIW, the best female chess player in history - Judit Polgar - refused to play women's tournaments. At her height, she ranked 8th in the world.

The highest-rated female player active today is not in world's top 100. She wouldn't even rank among the top 20 junior players.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:03 PM on September 7, 2010


But beyond specific sports, the argument for sex-segregation in sports sounds disturbingly similar to arguments for race-segregation in sports in the past: "if we didn't have a separate league, they'd {take over|be wiped out} in open competition!" Better to have an open competition, and figure out how to ensure the playing field is level if it's necessary, than to start off with separate ones as a premise.

For the vast majority of Olympic sports (scratch that. Sports in general) I just don't see how you could do that. How can you level the playing field in the 100m or the high jump without changing it into something completely different?

I want to make sure that exceptional women get a chance to compete and a chance to excel. Paula Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba are two of the greatest marathon runners ever. They are staggering talents. The vast majority of men will never get within 20 minutes of their best times. If they ran with men they'd be solid national class runners who would never see international competition except on tv. Thanks to separate women's events they are recognized, by running nerds like me, for their awesome athleticism.

Masters running is a pretty competetive field. There are age group records for most distances and the men and women take it very, very seriously. A 50 year old woman can not match the performance of younger runners - so she runs and is competetive with other 50+ runners. If you would suggest leveling the playing field across gender, would you also advocate leveling it across age (admittedly, age is a lot more clear cut than gender, but gender is pretty clear cut in 99% of the cases)?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:00 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


That male and female classes exist separately in most shooting sports seems to be mostly for historical reasons, not really because the field is tilted against women.

Olympic skeet shooting actually used to be mixed-gender. Until a woman won.
posted by transona5 at 3:48 PM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


And actually, I see someone else posted about Zhang Shan on the previous Semenya thread.

I've always been a little worried that pushing women's sports as a feminist cause might create the impression that the best female scientists or writers can compete with men about as well as the best female sprinters can. Still, no one questions the equality of lighter-weight or older men despite the existence of their own divisions in some sports.
posted by transona5 at 3:55 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


We could make the value of scores reflect the standard level athletic achievement for that person's physiological peer group.

In the NBA, for example:
---- A basket by Lebron James might be worth half a point, because his demographic (wildly athletic, tall, young men with once in a generation kind of talent) can score easily in the NBA.
---- A basket by me might be worth 10 points because academics of average height that are approaching middle age aren't really expected to make many (or any) shots against NBA level talent. However, I'd undoubtedly get lucky once in a while.
---- A basket by Betty white would be worth 100 points because frankly any NBA team that lets her score deserves to lose.*

We could do this for every sport. A home run by me = 10 runs (or infinity runs because it will never happen). I'd only have to rush for 2 yds. for my team to get a first down. etc.


*NOT BETTY WHITE-IST
posted by oddman at 4:08 PM on September 7, 2010


Joe Beese wrote: The highest-rated female player active today is not in world's top 100. She wouldn't even rank among the top 20 junior players.

I knew about Judit Polgar, but I wasn't aware that the gap had continued to grow. I wonder whether there's any way to tell whether men are better chess players on average or whether champions tend to be found among men because they exhibit more variability. Of course, it might be neither of those - it might just be a social thing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:46 PM on September 7, 2010


We could make the value of scores reflect the standard level athletic achievement for that person's physiological peer group.

Harrison Bergeron, there's a call for you on line three.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:45 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just assume that a sport which values something men much, much better in than women isn't necessarily the be all and end all. If it's an erectile tissue measuring competition you'd get the same effect. A penis will be bigger than a clitoris, just like if you had a mammary tissue area measuring competition women might win.

We also tend not to test people on typically female skills with the same pomp and circumstance, which is sexism. Men are faster than women. Whoopity doo, they also tend to be taller, and once dying in childbirth is removed from the risk factors, shorter lived.


I also find it very easy to separate from other fields where the genders should be able to compete as equals from ones where the deck is unfix-ably stacked. Monkey with hormones and you can change a human's athletic potential, but as yet, levels of testosterone don't seem to do anything about math ability, or chess skills, or so on.
posted by Phalene at 6:01 PM on September 7, 2010


Olympic equestrian events are integrated. The wikipedia piece about Zhang Shan is wrong - or I'm misunderstanding it - when it says that she was "the only woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal in an event open to both men and women." Women competing in Olympic equestrian events have won both individual and team golds.
posted by rtha at 6:19 PM on September 7, 2010


Phalene: The problem is that you're essentially writing off all athletic endeavour as sexist or irrelevant. And athletic competition has been around for millenia and is as much a part of the human condition as literature or music. So completely disregarding it as you seem to do strikes me as questionable at best.
posted by Justinian at 7:06 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


We also tend not to test people on typically female skills with the same pomp and circumstance, which is sexism.

Isn't the suggestion that there are "typically female skills" also somewhat sexist?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:51 PM on September 7, 2010


When Michael Phelps had a good season with his genetic gifts, the response was, "gee that guy can swim fast."
When Caster Semenya had a good season with her genetic gifts, the response was, "she must be cheating."


You mean -- Michael Phelps is part dolphin?!?!?
posted by msalt at 12:29 PM on September 8, 2010


Not remotely the same circumstances. Phelps was a known quantity in the swimming world, with a long track of being very very good at swimming. Semenya appeared out of nowhere, with no history of being a good runner, and immediately started taking golds.

Of course Phelps has a track record, he's a nice upper-middle-class kid from just outside of Baltimore who has been swimming competitively since he was a small child and had his talent honed by a well-regarded coach.

Caster Semenya is from rural Limpopo. The principal of her secondary school supported Caster's running skill by taking her to the next town over to run on a somewhat better dirt track. It being known that she was the fastest runner isn't the same sort of track record as winning national swim meets, but it's not as if no-one knew her as a young girl.
posted by desuetude at 8:04 PM on September 12, 2010


Justinian:

I'm not saying nobody should ever perform sports, but when you have a feild that distinctly disadvantages 50% of the population, regardless of education or upbringing, it's not the same as a piece of writing or art. As I said, measuring someone based on physical strength is like measuring penis size. I really might be enjoyable for all involved, but it's going to exclude women from the top tiers by design.

As for if "typical female skills" is sexist, well, history has shown a large bias it how it sorts people, and it's very rare to see a traditional female job lauded with the same degree of status male jobs and tasks are given, or more.
posted by Phalene at 9:17 AM on September 17, 2010


As I said, measuring someone based on physical strength is like measuring penis size. I really might be enjoyable for all involved, but it's going to exclude women from the top tiers by design.

This is ridiculous. We are animals -- physical beings -- and strength is paramount for animals, no matter how much we struggle to deny it. Sheer strength is probably the most obvious competitive measurement one can use on human beings, other than speed, which also depends on strength to a large degree. The fact that women can't compete with men in this regard isn't "by design", as if men set out to cherry-pick some otherwise-meaningless dick-measuring competition women can't win. It's by nature. As a small woman, I can tell you that the strength disparity is both incredibly obvious and incredibly fundamental, outside sport as well as within it. It's not just something men came up with to keep women down. You may as well claim that mass "isn't necessarily the be all and end all" of planetary motion because "50% of the planetary population" can't compete with Jupiter or Saturn.

I might buy the strength-sports-are-sexism argument if there weren't separate strength sports for women, but there are. It makes no sense to claim that we're "excluding women from the top tiers by design", when we've gone out of our way to create sports where women aren't excluded from the top tier, by design. There are women squatting 420+ pounds in competition (which is, by the way, much more than most of the male population can squat even with two years of training) -- why would anyone even bother if strength were simply the equivalent of penis length?
posted by vorfeed at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2010


On further thought, I think your argument is more sexist than strength sports ever will be. Women have been competing just fine for well over a hundred years -- we don't need you to swoop in now to protect us from the Terrible Secret of Sport.
posted by vorfeed at 7:46 PM on September 17, 2010


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