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Opinion The debate in sports over the definition of womanhood is paternalistic – and hypocritical

Caster Semenya competes in the athletics women's 1500m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 10, 2018.

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Ann Peel competed for Canada in the racewalk for more than 15 years, winning medals internationally. She founded Athletes CAN with a group of like-minded athletes, was the vice-chair of Athletics Canada, the first executive director of Right to Play, and created several community sport initiatives over the years.

I was inducted into the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame at the end of last summer. It was an immense honour, but it wasn’t mine alone: There were many people whose support advanced my career, including my extraordinary coach, John Fitzgerald, with whom I was inducted, and who passed away a few months later.

Winning medals for Canada was great. But I’m proudest of how I’ve been able to use my voice to support athletes, especially women – because the people who control sport in Canada and around the world have proven themselves unable to truly include us.

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My plan had been to use the Hall of Fame induction ceremony to speak up. However, I bit my tongue. There were young athletes in attendance who were competing that weekend, and I didn’t want to put a damper on their evening.

But I had wanted to say something.

Caster Semenya (RSA) of South Africa competes on the way to winning the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters

I had wanted to remind the room that in my lifetime, women were excluded from sport outright. I had few female role models to look up to in athletics, and they did not exist at all in the racewalk. Even though the men’s racewalk had been an Olympic event since 1908, the women’s racewalk wasn’t included for another 84 years. Women who excelled in the pole vault, triple jump, hammer throw, steeplechase and distance events were also excluded. So many opportunities denied, so many milestones that never materialized – all because we are women.

I wanted to remind the audience of the backward logic behind excluding women. Until 1972, women were unable to compete at racing distances longer than 800 metres, because the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was concerned about women’s bodies – specifically, our reproductive systems. The major worry with the triple jump, for example, was that women’s uteruses might fall out. The fear around the gruelling training regimen of distance athletes was that it would lead to amenorrhea (a stop in menstruation) and the loss of reproductive capacity. Ironically, when I did become pregnant, I had to prove that my ability to reproduce did not affect me as a competitor. My funding under the Sport Canada Athlete Assistance Program was cut by 30 per cent because – and here, Sport Canada was referring to “my having a baby" – I had “intentionally jeopardized my high-performance status.” If I were to have had a second or third child, I would have had my funding cut further. I won that fight after filing a human-rights complaint – but it only reaffirmed that these organizations get you both coming and going.

The fight is not over – in a way, there are even more fronts that demand our attention.

South Africa's Caster Semenya runs past the Olympic flame in her women's 800m round 1 heat during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium Aug. 8, 2012.

Eddie Keogh/Reuters

As international sport moved away from the outright prohibition of female participation, the newest obsession has been about determining who even qualifies as a woman, or woman enough. Presumably, this arose from a fear that men would sneak in to women’s races. On what planet that might happen, I’m not sure: Most of the sneaking in was done by women who just wanted to race, as Kathrine Switzer did when she, as K.V. Switzer, ran the 1967 Boston Marathon.

But the case of South African runner Caster Semenya, the Olympic champion who was born with hyperandrogenism, a condition affecting women in which testosterone is elevated, has inflamed matters to a different degree. Ms. Semenya is a great, clean, female athlete, and as a reward for being too damn good at the sport she loves, she has endured highly invasive questions about her body, her genetic composition and her place in the sport. No one, meanwhile, muses about whether some physical anomaly disqualifies great male athletes such as Usain Bolt; we celebrate his achievements and his charming flair. But we can’t seem to celebrate the transcendent female athlete, especially when that athlete is a black woman.

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It would also be impossible to talk about the policing of Ms. Semenya’s body without noting the people who have done the most to tear her down: her white competitors, many of whom avoided her after she won gold in the Rio Olympics. Those women were then defended by people who demeaned Ms. Semenya’s womanhood with a simple slur that carries the weight of centuries of anti-black oppression: “Just look at her."

Athletes compete in the Women's 20km Race Walk at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Never mind that the performance differential between the so-called “differences in sexual development” (DSD) or “high-testosterone” athlete is less than 3 per cent in running events, according to the IAAF’s own research – meaning that the difference is almost irrelevant. And never mind that hormone treatment is invasive and has very negative health implications. The IAAF would determine that Ms. Semenya has “unusually” high testosterone levels – which, it should be said, are well below the lowest threshold of a biological male – and ruled that she must chemically alter her body to continue competing, as part of broader regulations around female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels; the Court of Arbitration for Sport has delayed its decision on her challenge until late April.

The category of “woman” faces further scrutiny by those who object to the presence of transgender females in sport. In February, tennis legend Martina Navratilova said that she worried that trans women will retain enough of their prior “maleness," giving them an unfair advantage.

Is this the devil’s bargain the female athlete must make? That we accept our bodies will be policed? That white female athletes, so powerful they can compete internationally, feel so threatened as to still need men’s protection through the rules of the IAAF and the IOC, downloading their marginalization onto the most vulnerable, that is, brown, black and trans female competitors? Does any of this protect the integrity of sport, or undermine it instead?

Let’s be clear: There are no confirmed cases of men competing as women in international athletics. This is where the assumption that the female athlete must be a protected category fails. Athletes or not, we are women living in a patriarchal society, and are still subject to misogyny. By putting up with this, we allow men further control of women’s bodies, and Ms. Semenya will likely not be the last to suffer. Who, and what, is next?

The legs of athletes competing in the women's 20km walk final are seen at the Sydney Olympic Games, Sept. 28, 2000.

David Gray/Reuters

After all, it wasn’t so long ago that this kind of body policing was done to all female athletes. My first experience with proving my “femininity” came at the World University Games in Japan in 1985. I remember arriving at the athletes’ village and being herded into a medical clinic with other women. We didn’t receive much information, other than that we were about to be tested to determine if we were, in fact, female.

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Growing up, I was often called a tomboy, as so many athletic girls are called, but no one ever suggested I wasn’t actually female. It was unsettling to have my womanhood tested. Guys in lab coats pulled out my hair, repeating the process until they had enough of the follicle for a chromosome test. And this wouldn’t be my last experience: At every pursuant major championship, this had to keep happening, because none of the sport authorities recognized any other authority’s ability to get it right.

The female athletes of concern now are, primarily, the bodies of women of colour. The IAAF’s actions have caused the dreams of too many athletes to die, their opportunity to compete cut short not by inadvertent rule violations or outright cheating, but by paternalism.

And the hypocrisy is galling. These organizations who work to “protect” women are also, in other spaces, leaving women on their own – to devastating effect.

In May, 2018, an independent investigator found that Desai Williams, one of my former teammates who went on to become a coach, violated Athletics Canada’s sexual-harassment policy with one of his athletes. Was the organization doing anything to protect the athlete he abused, or the other female athletes he coached? No: It wasn’t until October that he was finally sanctioned and prevented from coaching, because it took that long for Athletics Canada to name him.

This is too common. In February, the CBC reported that more than 222 coaches involved in amateur sport in Canada were convicted of sexual offences against more than 600 athletes under 18 in the past 20 years. This is where athletes need protection. This is where sports authorities should be spending their resources. Instead, they’re devoting it to retrograde ideas around determining who is or isn’t enough of a woman.

This obsession to “protect” women as a category of competitor rests, of course, in the assumption that women aren’t as powerful as men. Generally speaking, we’re not – but that misses the point. The constant here is that women are already marginalized in sport, and now the more marginalized women – those of colour and who are transgender – are even more vulnerable. Under the guise of protection, sport is effectively declaring open season on the body of the female athlete.

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We cannot pretend that this is okay. We must use our voices to ask tough questions, and we must demand to be heard. Because there are lots of young women following us who deserve a positive sport experience.

And with my voice, I want to make my commitment clear: to help build a world where women can simply train and compete. Like the men get to do.

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