On August 19th, 18-year-old Caster Semenya of South African won the women’s 800 meter run at the World Championships in Berlin with a time of 1:55:45 only to have charges leveled against her that she is not truly a woman.
This wasn’t the first time this year that such controversy occurred in women’s sports. German tennis player Sarah Gronert, born with both female and male genitalia, felt pressured to have her male genitalia removed three years ago and had submit to gender testing earlier this year as part of her petition for eligibility to play in the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
Since the mid-1960s, participants in international women’s athletics have been required to undergo gender verification testing. At the outset these were “naked parades” based upon physical genitalia. Chromosome and SRY gene testing soon entered the picture, which made the process more scientific and less salacious, but still confusing. In 2000, the International Olympic Committee abolished the testing. However five Olympic federations (basketball, judo, skiing, volleyball, and weightlifting) still require the tests, which are anything but simple.
Regardless of whether Semenya gets to keep her gold medal and Gronert someday wins the French Open, the fact remains that such questions are never raised in men’s athletics. If a man beats another man, no one alleges it is because his body produces more testosterone.
If we are truly going to level the playing field, shouldn’t we also be looking at the size of athletes’ hearts or thighs? Gender testing in female athletics isn’t really so much about fairness as much as it is a reflection of how we denigrate female athletes and women’s athletics overall.
With the exception of sports where they compete directly, such as auto racing, we don’t pay female athletes the same amount of money as male athletes. In July, at the Tour de Champaign, did it appear that the women were working less hard than the men in their races? Do their bikes cost any less? And yet they earned a fraction of what their male counterparts did that day. The gap between male and female athletic earnings is staggering in lower level competition, but remains large even in top level competition that has major media coverage. According to the most recent study by the Women’s Sports Foundation, for every dollar a male tennis player earns, a female earns 68 cents. In golf a woman earns 36 cents to a man’s dollar. And an NBA player earns 58 times the money of a WBNA player.
That’s if the sporting events are covered at all. Studies have repeatedly shown that female sports are not allotted the same media coverage as male sports whether it’s the U.S., U.K., or Australia.
When sports are televised, invariably the women are performing in uniforms that have little to no bearing on their performance but apparently earn bigger ratings points. Female runners compete in skin tight gear that covers less than some swimsuits, yet male runners still wear loose jerseys and shorts.
In beach volleyball, female players compete in swim suits bordering on thongs, while their male counterparts sport board shorts. Does the sand not cause the same degree of abrasion to their skin when they dive for the ball? Even in auto racing, where men and women wear the same uniforms, male drivers are not asked to pose off the track in swimsuits.
However, the denigration doesn’t end there. We also punish female athletes for not being straight. Martina Navratilova’s endorsements paled in comparison to Chris Evert’s despite the fact that Navratilova was the better player.
If the promise of Title IX was that women would become strong and confident, why do we continue to question them when they run faster and serve harder? Why is it that we can only tolerate women’s success in athletics if they are willing to show us skin and curves, and be straight?