Maybe “the integrity of female athletics” is a bad idea

The dehumanization of Caster Semenya is just part of a racist history.

I can’t stop thinking of this photo of Lynsey Sharp being hugged by fellow White lady Melissa Bishop after losing to Caster Semenya.

The recently announced ruling that will force Semenya to take drugs to lower her natural testosterone levels has been widely discussed for the completely scientifically unfounded, racist, sexist, and homophobic, not to mention simply inhumane, dumpster fire of a decision that it is.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell this audience that there is no actual scientific basis for this decision, or that physical attributes between individual athletes vary so widely that it would be both impossible and a bad idea to attempt to “regulate” them all, or that Noted White Man Michael Phelps has been lauded rather than scrutinized for his perceived natural advantages in sport––and that’s just one example. The IAAF even acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the ruling but said discrimination was necessary for “achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.”

If this mistreatment is truly what’s necessary to preserve “female athletics” in their current form, I’d argue that is what needs to change.

I also want to make sure everyone understands that this is hardly the first time White women used eugenicist and colonialist ideas and moments to attack Black women they perceived as threatening. Slate recently covered this story with an analogy to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where the women’s 800m race was cancelled because it was deemed too challenging for the (White) female athletes. The piece notes that this anecdote and the Semenya case, taken as one, offer “a lesson about how institutions rely on bad science to ‘protect’ women in sport”––but as in many cases, pretending “women” is a single identity category isn’t worth much to Black women who have been dehumanized by eugenicist institutional rules from which White women benefit. Let’s remember Black women couldn’t even compete in the Olympics until 1936, but people of color were exploited as a spectacle to attempt to demonstrate White superiority in the Olympics long before that.

And White women have too often looked on with feigned helplessness––and actively participated––all the while in shameless complicity, which is exactly what happened here. As intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis told VOX, “What I think this comes down to is, Caster’s faster than white girls and she made them cry.”

White women have often participated in the perpetuation of colonialist norms and the dehumanization of people of color to further their own causes. American suffragettes and first-wave feminists including Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger decided that alignment with the eugenics movement, which included work by actual female eugenicists, was sound political strategy (it was). Female Klan leaders hid their motives behind the rhetoric of “social welfare.” Semenya’s White competitors have been throwing tantrums over not being able to beat her and comforting themselves in a warm bath of hideous racism. British marathoner Paula Radcliffe insisted that Caster Semenya’s case could represent “the death of women in sport.”

That image of Sharp and Semenya has stuck with me because it represents White women calling upon privilege to try to ruin Semenya’s life because they’re furious with her success. Without the support of science, Semenya’s White competitors have always known they had the structural power behind them to get what they wanted and the bottomless sea of public sympathy to get away with it––and as many trans and intersex activists have pointed out, they’ve utterly exposed the failed logic of TERF fearmongering talking points by insisting that a woman be forced to change her body to conform to a societal gender standard. White women everywhere should be ashamed at this disgusting ruling and the utter lack of solidarity with Semenya from so many of her fellow athletes, but we shouldn’t be surprised.

Julia Burke

Julia is a wine educator with an interest in labor and politics in the wine industry. She has also written about fitness and exercise science, mental health, beer, and a variety of other topics for Skepchick. She has been known to drink Amaro Montenegro with PB&J.

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  1. We should remember why sports are segregated by sex in the first place. It’s to provide a playing field where women can win medals and championships, share in the glory, avoid injury in contact sports, and generally have achievable goals to strive for. Males have large and well-known physical advantages over females in nearly all sports. Caster Semenya is a male, with many of the physical advantages of being a male, despite an intersex condition. Males who compete in women’s sports tilt the playing field, and the only reason the “integrity of female athletics” remains largely intact is that such males remain few and most of them are not great athletes. But the more areas of sports where males compete, the more areas that will become permanently closed off to women when males take the top spots in competitions and set records that no woman can realistically hope to ever beat.

    That’s not fair to women. It’s not fair to deny girls and women, now and in the future, a chance to be the best, to break a record, or to win a medal. Watch some of the videos of high school girls racing against males, with no hope of winning, and see the clear discouragement on their faces. Caster Semenya should compete with the other males in men’s sports. Perhaps he wouldn’t be a star then. That’s unfortunate but far less of an injustice – if any at all given that he’d merely be in the same boat as almost everyone who isn’t a star athlete – than denying the chance of a win to thousands of women. It’s far less of an injustice to expect the small number of transgendered male high school students to compete against the other males regardless of their gender identity, than to ruin the chances of and discourage the much larger number of normal, female students.

    One case doesn’t do it, but if males competing against females in sports ever became widespread, it really would spell “the death of women in sport”.

  2. Thanks for doing some coverage on this.
    Deadspin has been doing a bunch of stuff on this and similar topics in the last year, and it’s really interesting reading about how racist this shit is, and how precisely targetted it can become (only specific events have the rules, and not necessarily the ones that their own studies suggest testosterone would most affect).

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