Sex and gender are in the news again. While in the academy boundaries are blurred and sex as well as gender can be seen as socially constructed and subject to social and cultural inscriptions that shape classification, in sport there remain very clear definitions of female and male with competitions being for women or for men. Things may not be quite so clear, however as is evident in the enormous coverage given to the 800m gold medallist Caster Semenya. She is fast, so fast that other athletes questioned whether she was a woman, leading the IAAF to instigate gender verification tests, albeit in a procedure that, quite wrongly was leaked before the final at the World Athletics Championships in August.

Caster Semenya Creative commons image Credit: José Goulão under CC-BY-NC-ND licence
Caster Semenya

As a sociologist who writes about bodies in sport, I feel fortunate to have been asked to comment, if depressed that many of the media interviews have been prefaced by some reference to Semenya’s ‘masculine’ appearance. It is hardly surprising that the athlete has a lean body with muscles; most athletes do. Bodies are shaped by sporting practices and these practices shape sport, but bodies are gendered and women in sport have to negotiate racialised, heterosexist stereotypes. Semenya’s raised levels of testosterone may tell us more about what happens to the body of an elite athlete than establishing any certainty about gender categories.

The debate, especially as manifest in media coverage, has invoked expert scientific and medical commentary in its path from claims of unfair practice and a body variously described as ‘manly’ and with a ‘strikingly musculature physique’ to sympathy for defiant resistance to the humiliation of gender verification testing and the claims that this very fast woman, must be a man.

Gender testing has a long history in sport, even though compulsory tests were abandoned at the Olympics in 1992. Tests have changed from those based on the embodied features which ‘experts’ can see to DNA and chromosomal tests to the current more complex panoply of procedures that include psychological testing.

Perhaps there is some acknowledgement of the complexity of gender identities and the weakness of a distinction based on the categorisation of human beings into two sexes; intersex and a range of different forms of development mean that many people than we imagine do not conform neatly to the clear genetic and physical criteria that the regulatory bodies of sport deploy.

The very term 'gender verification' suggests that we could get at the truth. A team of experts will find out, but gender is more complex. The current coverage of Semenya's case illustrates how troubling gender is in sport. Images draw upon stereotypes of what constitutes masculinity and femininity in the current case, as in so many in the past. Women athletes have to reassure us of their femininity, through comportment and appearance, even when they, through the body practices of their sport, necessarily have very different bodies from their female non-sporting counterparts.

Public debate is always framed by a moral discourse of 'fair play' that invokes the unfair advantage that men who pass a women might gain in sport, but what is most alarming and distressing about these cases is the humiliation that women undergo in being subjected to 'verification' and the public and expert scrutiny that is reserved for women. The drug testing which has largely replaced the genetic testing in the Olympics could be carried out without a specifically gendered emphasis. Then maybe we could celebrate the achievements of a woman who can run very fast.