Today I came across two articles in the New York Times related to female athletes and women’s sport. Neither contains good news and in fact both articles highlight that despite gains made in the post Title IX era, female sport participation is still constantly under attack.
Sport sociologists term the participation of females in sport and the conflicts that arise over who will play and under what conditions as “contested terrain.” Contested terrain means both oppression and resistance exist simultaneously and that existing power dynamics and social inequalities are both reinforced and challenged in and through sport.
Alice Dreger wrote a piece titled Redefining the Sexes in Unequal Terms about how a new rule pertaining to the level of functional testosterone in female athletes is a sexist form of biochemical policing that male athletes do not endure.
It also got me thinking…When a man outperforms his competition by a large margin—such as sprinter Usain Bolt for example—no one asks “Is he really a man?” No one says, “He is so fast, he might be a woman. He should be tested.” But when a woman wins by a lot—such as sprinter Caster Semenya—her sex is immediately questioned, “Is she really a woman?” This appears to be a clear example of marginalizing female athletic performance, homophobia, and sexism. Unfortunately Semenya’s ‘new’ look is not a new phenomenon for female athletes who have fallen under scrutiny as a result of outstanding sport performances.
Following South African Caster Semenya’s 800m win at the Track & Field (IAAF) World Championships, a storm of opinions and commentary erupted over her subsequent sex testing/gender verification.
Some of the best I’ve seen is The Nation piece written by Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf, an MSNBC video exposing the “Twisted, Sexist, Racist, & Heteronormative” Track & Field History, and two blogs by After Atlanta (here and here).
One sport sociology colleague on Facebook asked pertaining to most of the existing media coverage…”Are we in the 1950’s?” As Zirin and Wolf write, this issue is a “minefield of sexism and homophobia”….but thankfully the critical perspective has emerged.