insidethegames.biz / The fairness fallacy is destroying women athletes
Sport and fair play go together like peanut butter and jelly. We speak of playing on a level playing field, we worry about doping, match fixing, diving and flopping, of cheating, all in the name of “fairness”.
For women athletes, the unobtainable quest for absolute fairness has profound consequences, leading to shaming, invasive medical examinations, lurid speculation, mutilating surgery, and more. In the following paragraphs, I’ll share some thoughts on how an obsession for “fairness” has lead to this deplorable state of affairs, and why it’s time to admit failure.
The latest victim of the current International Olympic Committee (IOC)/International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) gender policy is Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter banned from the 2014 Commonwealth Games because her natural testosterone levels are too high.
This policy arose from the controversy over South African runner Caster Semenya. Rather than attempting to determine the gender of an athlete, the policy claims to simply limit participation in women’s events to athletes with a testosterone level within what the sports organisations decide is the normal range for women. Federations have adopted their policy in the name of fairness for women athletes.
And yet sport is one of the most unfair of human activities. I weigh well over 200 pounds. I’ll never be a jockey. I’m 5ft 6in. I’ll never play in the NBA. Of all the components of athletic success, the largest, and the one that is the least susceptible to change, are our genes, coupled with our early upbringing. Is it “fair” for the swimmers he competes against that Michael Phelps’ body is “made for swimming”?
It’s not just the genetic lottery that determines sporting success: while a girl may have incredible potential in the slalom, if she is born in Namibia, there is little chance that she’ll ever see a ski. A boy may have it in him to be a great sailor, but if his family is far from the water or lacks the finances for this expensive sport, his natural gifts will remain hidden.
All this is fundamentally unfair, yet such injustices in nature and nurture are usually forgotten, or only considered incidentally, when in fact these are the basic components of athletic performance.
Why should this be?
It seems to me that it is because our society has endeavoured since the creation of modern sport in a masculine militaristic model to imbue sport with moral qualities. We want to imagine that you win by being a better person in some way, not because you have better genes. We want for athletes’ success to derive from their drive, their dedication, their training, their focus…not the innate qualities they bring to their sport.
All those mental and emotional, those “moral” qualities, are of course important. Between athletes of equivalent physical capacities, they will make the difference. They allow athletes to overcome certain weaknesses. But they repose on significant physical differences and real discrepancies in access to training, nutrition, facilities.
With regard to gender, these innate differences are particularly important. Although there is significant overlap as groups – on average men’s performance in many sports is superior to women’s performance. Current gender policy focuses on one aspect of the difference between men and women: testosterone levels.
This is debatable: testosterone is at best one among many reasons for difference in performance. But it’s the differentiating feature that after the examination of genitalia and examination of chromosomes is being used today in sport, with dramatic impacts on women athletes.
By focusing solely on natural testosterone levels, IOC/IAAF policy relies on a limit that contradicts itself: a female athlete cannot compete against women if her natural testosterone level is “too high”, where “too high” is defined as “within the range for a female athlete”. An athlete like Dutee Chand is a woman. If she is a woman, her level of testosterone is by definition within the range of testosterone found among women. How can it be “unfair” for her to compete as a woman?
Yet this is the position of the IOC and IAAF, who have determined that a certain level of testosterone is acceptable, while more than that level is not. Indeed, according to their logic, the athlete who has the most testosterone within the range deemed “natural” is the best athlete, while her rival with a tiny bit more naturally occurring testosterone is disqualified. It boggles the mind.
Women’s divisions are as a rule intended to preserve “fairness”, and are akin to divisions for weight, height, age, even levels of ability (recreational vs competitive, D1 vs D2, etc.). Such divisions are in some ways contrary to the principle of athletic competition: sport is about finding the fastest, the highest, the strongest. It’s about absolutes.
Within the world of sport, we have decided that participation is at least as important as competition. Without divisions for age, gender, weight, etc., the number of competitive athletes would be negligible: only the very best would have a chance of winning.
By violating the principle of absolute performance, we violate one aspect of “fairness” (“who can run the fastest?”) while preserving another notion of fairness (“who among a restricted group can run the fastest?”). While some divisions are objective (age, weight, etc.), others, and in particular women vs men, are not as clear.
By setting an arbitrary limit for testosterone in women athletes, the IOC and IAAF are causing harm. Women like Dutee Chand want to compete. To do so, they will jump through any hoop, accept any sacrifice. They will undergo treatments to lower their natural testosterone levels. They will undergo surgery. They accept mutilation of their bodies just to be able to compete.
She is quoted as having said: “I am sad. Had the medical tests been conducted earlier, I could have got myself cured and participated in the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow. If my state takes steps to get me cured, I will again play for my country in international events and bring laurels for the country”.
Dutee Chand is not ill. She needs no cure. She needs to be able to compete.
It is time for the IAAF and the IOC and the sports organisations that follow their lead to accept that women’s divisions are by definition an approximation. Gender is not a binary option with a clear dividing line. Women deserve to have options to compete, and women’s divisions are a necessity. For weight divisions there are scales. For age divisions there are calendars. But there will never be an equivalent tool for distinguishing men from women in sport.
Perhaps it’s time for sports organisations to stop trying, and to promote the values of inclusion that are behind the existence of gender divisions in sport. That would be truly fair.