Let male and female compete together  //  The abolition of gender categories in sport: a sound argument?

15 Apr 2010 Posted by

As a follow up to my earlier post, I am currently reading a book called “Genetic technology and sport: ethical questions”.  And Chapter 15 of this book is titled “The genetic design of a new Amazon”.

Below is an excerpt from that chapter.  I’m rewriting it, word for word, to build on what I wrote about in my earlier post regarding Caster Semenya.  I’d love some debate, and I know you would too!

“We have argued that it (gender categories in sport) should be abolished.  Women and men should compete against one another on equal terms on sports arenas.  The reasons for giving up sexual discrimination within sports, and for allowing individuals of both sexes to compete with each other is simple.  In sports it is crucial that the best person wins.  The sexual differences are simply irrelevant.  If a female athlete can perform better than a male athlete, this female athlete should be allowed to compete with, and beat, the male athlete.  If she cannot beat a certain male athlete, so be it.  If the competition was fair, she should be able to face the fact that he was more talented.  It is really as simple as that.  Sexual discrimination within sports does not have any better rationale than sexual discrimination in any other fields of our lives”.

– Tamburrin and Tannsjo, Genetic technology and sport

Your thoughts?  Let’s throw that open to women everywhere and get their take on it, I’d love to hear.  One thing that strikes me is that we spend a lot of time “telling” and not enough “listening”, so I’d love to hear an objective view on the above paragraph.

The debate – can women compete against men in athletic events?

The reason I make this point again, is that this scenario is invited by allowing Caster Semenya to compete as a female on the grounds that she may have a “natural” physiological advantage as a result of an intersex condition.  I’d love your thoughts – mine are expressed at the end of my previous post.

But, I would hope that the implications of this on the results from the next hundred years of competition would be obvious to everyone – no female athlete makes the top 500 of any athletic, swimming event each year, and so the chance that “a female athlete will perform better than a male athlete” at the top level of competition (Olympic Games) is basically zero.

The counter-points debated

But there’s more to say on this.  The chapter continues to say the following, and this time, I’ve put my immediate thought in color alongside each argument, which I’ve put in italics:

“Many arguments have been readily called forth in objection to our proposal. Here are some of them:

  1. Sexual discrimination within sports is no different that the use of, say, different weight classes in certain sports, intended to make the result less predictable. We use sexual discrimination because we seek, to use Warren Fraleigh’s term, “the sweet tension of uncertainty of outcome”. Comments on this one below… 
  2. If women and men compete, and women defeat men, then this will cause violent responses from men. So we had better retain the discrimination. This point is, sadly, a possibility. But it’s not grounds for eliminating discrimination. Fortunately, perhaps, it would never happen in athletics at the top level. 
  3. If we give up sexual discrimination in sports, then probably all women will find, because on average they perform poorly in comparison with men, that they are always defeated by some men. This will be discouraging for women in general and female athletes in particular.   This is exactly the point, except the authors of this piece haven’t recognized that it’s not a question of “average”, but rather that the best female is more than 10% behind the best male – 12 minutes in a marathon (and 20 for most of the top women at the moment), more than 1 second in a 100m race, more than 1 meter in the long jump. These are massive differences, but more on this below.

“The first argument is mistaken. When we discriminate in some sports such as wrestling between different weight-classes, this has to do with the fact that weight is a decisive factor in wrestling, that directly affects the outcome of the competition. But there exist no sports where sex is a decisive factor in that sense: sex is only indirectly related to the outcome of a sports contest.”

This is only partly true. Yes, sex is only “indirectly” responsible for the outcome. But it’s influence is so large, according to my analysis, that the outcome would all but be decided by it. To repeat (apologies for repetition), the very best women in history do not make the top 500 performances in track and field athletics PER YEAR. In swimming, it may be narrower, but consider that Michael Phelps is a full 26 seconds ahead of the women’s world record holder in a 400m medley and you get the idea.

The result in athletics and swimming is too strongly influenced by sex for the ethical position argued here to hold. I would argue, for example, that a wrestler in the lighter weight division is MORE likely to have a chance of beating a heavyweight than the very best woman has of beating the very best man. Some may disagree.

Perhaps freed of “discrimination”, women would narrow this gap.  This is what Tamburrini and Tannsjo argue.  But to leap up from outside the top 500 to challenging even the top 100 – physiologically, that’s a stretch of the imagination.

Tamburrini and Tannsjo, incidentally, continue to argue that in the face of the statistical evidence that no woman will outperform the best men (which they do eventually acknowledge), there should be genetic engineering to help women catch up with men, and that where possible, this should be desirable.  In otherwords, women should seek out genetic engineering to be able to remain competitive in sport!  I’m not sure what to make of this…


I’m going to leave it at that, and invite debate.  I can imagine I may face some hostile emails, and that’s OK.  I believe the evidence speaks loudly enough, and I’d encourage people to look into it – look back at historical performances and ask where the women champions would finish in the men’s events, and it should become clear.

The reality is that separation of male and female categories, while termed “sexual discrimination” by these ethicists, is actually fundamental to equality of sport.  To apply this to the case of Caster Semenya, what it means is that our categorization of males and females, as flawed and suspect as it may be, demands that the line be defended.  Or removed altogether, and then above is the situation.  But to commit only halfway and permit participation when the gender line is blurred (and seriously, how often does this happen?) is neither here nor there, and damaging for the sport, and the other female athletes in the event.

Physiologically, there is simply too much to overcome.  And I don’t believe that’s a bad thing.


This post is part of the following threads: Caster Semenya, News/Controversies – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
%d bloggers like this: