Social categories and sports: negotiating a minefield

The Olympics and Paralympics are happening this summer – hopefully to be filled with lots of great sports action and relatively little sewage-borne disease. But in addition to being fun to watch, this summer’s Olympics will be at the epicenter of some incredibly complicated debates about classification and social categories.

Sports are often organized by classificatory categories. Sometimes, doing this is pretty straight forward – e.g., you have weight classes for boxers, and to determine what weight class a boxer should compete in you just weigh them. But others are more difficult. And the most difficult – but also the most significant and wide-ranging – are those classifications that are correlated to social categories: whether someone is a man or a woman, and whether (and how) someone is disabled.

The issue of sex and gender categories – and sex and gender policing – in sports has become familiar in recent years, in large part because of the controversy over South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya was subjected to horribly invasive ‘gender verification’ tests which ultimately led to the implementation of rules regulating testosterone levels in female athletes. Semenya was allowed to compete in women’s events, but only by suppressing her natural testosterone levels. Her performance suffered. But those rules have recently been overturned, and Semenya is now the heavy favorite to win the women’s 800m in Rio.

A big part of the problem is that sport classification is binary – you either compete as a male or as a female. But biology isn’t that simple. Most people are easily classifiable as male or female, but not all – there is a spectrum of sex variation between the clearly male and the clearly female. And perhaps unsurprisingly, various intersex conditions seem to be over-represented among elite female athletes.

Classifying athletes as either and only male or female requires us draw a sharp division where there sometimes isn’t one. That by itself isn’t a big deal – in fact, it’s something we do all the time in organizing society. Everyone accepts that 10-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to drive but 20-year-olds should. The legal age limit for driving will obviously be an arbitrary cut-off somewhere in the middle. There’s nothing intrinsically special about the age of 16 in the US, or 17 in the UK; it’s just the place where where an arbitrary-but-needed boundary is drawn. But sex and gender in sport is much more politically and socially significant – especially when you consider that the people most vulnerable in the debate (intersex and trans people) are also among the most vulnerable people in our society more generally.

Things get even more complicated when we consider that classification for sport competition is a strange mixture of sex and gender. It clearly isn’t just a matter of gender. A genderqueer person who has female-associated sex characteristics and has never undergone any hormone therapy should clearly be allowed to compete as a woman, regardless of whether they identify as a woman. A trans man who hasn’t undergone any sort of medical transition process should arguably be allowed to continue to compete as a woman if they have done so previously (that is, a change in publicly-stated gender identification doesn’t obviously force a change in sport classification, if that change isn’t accompanied by any sort of medical transition procedure). But it also isn’t just a matter of sex. A trans woman who has undergone years of hormone therapy should arguably be allowed to compete as a woman, regardless of whether she would fit other typical definitions of ‘female’.

In all these cases, what seems to be relevant to sport classification are the sex-related physiological factors which affect sport performance. Separate classifications exist because sex-related physiological differences create differences in athletic ability. Sex classification is often pitched as necessary simply because it allows women to be competitive at elite levels. And it’s certainly true that for sports requiring explosive power, speed, etc males tend to have athletic advantage. But it’s also worth remembering that female bodies have advantages over male bodies in areas such as balance and flexibility, though typically this leads to events where men just don’t compete (e.g., the balance beam) or activities requiring extreme amounts of athleticism being construed as arts rather than sports (e.g., ballet). That being said, it’s clearly the case that sex factors affect sports performance, and some sort of sex/gender classification in sports is important.

Trans athletes have made a compelling case that, regardless of how their sex might or might not be classified, it’s their hormone levels that should determine their gender classification in sports. A trans woman who has been on HRT for years has much more in common – when it comes to the physiological factors that affect sport performance – with cis women than she does with cis men. But allowing trans women to compete on the basis of their hormone levels deepens the complexity of the controversy surrounding hyper-androgenous athletes like Semenya. Sex classification in sports can’t merely be a matter of self-identification (the way that gender classification arguably can be). But is it fair to subject trans athletes – and only trans athletes – to testosterone limits?

Some have argued that hyper-androgenous athletes shouldn’t have their hormones regulated because whatever advantage they incur is natural. If their bodies naturally produce lots of testosterone and that gives them an advantage, so be it. Elite athletes often have unusual physical characteristics that give them an advantage, and we don’t force them to curtail those advantages in order to make sports ‘fair’. But it isn’t quite that simple. The issue with hyper-androgenism – and intersex conditions more generally – is that they create advantage that’s directly related to the male/female classification structure we have in place precisely because some sex-related characteristics (including testosterone levels) give male bodies advantages over female bodies.

Views on this issue run the gamut. A New York Times report persuasively argues that testosterone limits on female athletes create more problems than they solve. But others, including sports scientist Joanna Harper (who is herself trans), maintain that they are the only solution to an otherwise intractable problem. Whatever your view on the matter, this could be an issue where there are simply no good answers. Creating a space for women to compete at the Olympic level against other women is important. But creating a classification that tells us who gets to count as women for sports purposes inevitably shows us how inadequate any sort of binaristic division is, and people get hurt in the process.

Currently, a trans woman who uses HRT to suppress testosterone can compete as a woman, but a genderqueer person with female sex characteristics who takes a small amount of testosterone for a mild androgenizing effect cannot, even if their testosterone levels are the same, and even if the genderqueer person’s testosterone levels are far below Semenya’s. The reasons for this are understandable – testosterone supplementation is a form of doping (indeed it’s one of the most common forms of doping in female athletes). The point is simply that any classification requires drawing a line, and a drawing of a sharp line for sex and gender is going to leave someone out in the cold.

We’re seeing a different, but no less fraught, classification issue emerge in the Paralympics. Again, the controversy arises because distinctions need to be made in order for the sport to function well, but these distinctions require drawing sharp lines across vague boundaries. In doing so, we artificially regiment the borders of politically significant categories in a way that directly impacts vulnerable people.

In the case of the Paralympics, we clearly need to be able to classify whether an athlete is disabled. And we also need to be able to classify – somewhat more baroquely – in what way they are disabled. The need for this is simple. Different disabilities affect sport performance differently, and we want athletes to be able to compete against others with relevantly similar impairments – someone with MS should be able to compete in the paralympics, but not necessarily compete directly against someone with no legs.

But increasing controversy in Paralympic competition surrounds the issue of ‘intentional misrepresentation’ – athletes who purposefully exaggerate some aspects of their disability in order to affect their classification, or (in the most extreme cases) non-disabled athletes who intentionally pass themselves off as disabled. It’s perhaps not surprising, as the Paralympics continues to gain popularity and press coverage, that this type of cheating would be on the rise. But the problem is that attempting to police intentional misrepresentation is both a logistical and political nightmare.

Paralympic classification typically runs on the simplistic assumption that we can measure and quantify ‘how disabled’ an athlete is for her sport. But this is at best a useful fiction. A runner with MS, for example, might have very different physical manifestations of her condition from day to day, some of which could be affected by the environment – especially heat – in which she’s performing. A swimmer with degenerative joint disease will likely have more problems with the strokes notoriously hard on the joints (butterfly and breast stroke) than she will with the less joint-demanding strokes (freestyle and backstroke). And so on.

In response to the problem of intentional misrepresentation, there have been calls for the stricter policing of whether and how athletes are disabled. But the measuring and classifying of disability is incredibly politically loaded, not the least because of how closely tied it is to public misconception surrounding things like benefit fraud. Because we tend to think that disability is relatively stable and easily quantifiable, we assume that, e.g., if someone is seen today not using a wheelchair then she was faking when she was using a wheelchair yesterday, or that if someone can lift their arms over their head today they’ll be able to do the same thing when it really matters tomorrow. In reality, the day to day experience of disability is – at least for many disabled people – much more complicated than that.

The Paralympic disability classifications try to create and subsequently police – again, for understandable reasons – neat disability categories where none exist. The motivation is good: we want a wide range of bodies to be able to compete in disability sport. But the risk is substantial: in trying to create discrete disability categories in such a popular and widely-televised event, there are increasing calls to subject athletes to invasive and insulting testing and increasing worries that we’re inadvertently reinforcing myths about what people who are ‘really disabled’ look and act like.

Both women’s sports and Paralympic sports are important social achievements. In each case, a marginalized group fought hard to have the right to compete in elite sports on their own terms. But figuring out what, exactly, those terms are going to be turns out to be an ethical and political minefield.

3 thoughts on “Social categories and sports: negotiating a minefield

  1. Classification is certainly a nightmare, and there may be no good solution.
    I don’t agree there is a “compelling case” that for trans athletes only the hormone levels should determine with whom they should compete, as hormone levels only account for a small part of the advantages of male over female bodies. How many fights did it take until Fallon Fox broke her opponent’s skull? Men have much thicker skulls, so in man-to-man fights this rarely happens, (cis)women don’t have the same build, and don’t often break each others’ skulls either. I would say that a trans athlete should not have a significant advantage over the other competitors wrt the demands of the sport.
    Perhaps the main question to explore is why we want to classify people into different groups, and then see how that purpose is best served.

  2. I agree that we should think more about the purpose that classification serves.

    But in the case of trans fighters, I don’t think that Fallon Fox injuring Tamikka Brents is really enough to generalise, especially given that there’s scientific evidence that trans women don’t have the same bone density or muscle strength as cis men. But even these kinds of arguments don’t take into account that there’s lots of variation in these things just among cis women. Maybe Brents was particularly badly injured in this case, but concussions are common in MMA, and dramatic injuries are as well, sometimes involving broken bones. (Silva vs. Weideman, anybody? Er, though if anyone reading this doesn’t know what I’m talking about, Google at your own risk.) So sure, we classify so as to negate advantages that we think are unfair, but I don’t think there are good reasons to think that that applies in this case.

  3. You may disagree with the specific example, but it’s not hard to find others. That’s why I think we need to examine the reasons behind the classification. If our main goal is a “level playing field” the case for trans-women athletes to compete with (cis)women is a bit shaky. But perhaps inclusiveness, or the desire to give everyone the opportunity to compete in sports are more important to us, see Gabrielle Ludwig.
    I was following the “related reads” and in a comment on the gender-neutral oscars someone proposed a weight/strength classification rather than a sex classification, there may be an argument for that.
    I suspect with disability classification it may be a similar issue: do we primarily want to guarantee nobody starts with an advantage, or do we primarily want to allow everyone to participate somehow?
    And is there a difference between amateur and pro-sports? Or between high-profile sports (i.e. lucrative sports, even where officially “amateur”), and those less in the limelight?

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