There is One Main Difference in Men’s and Women’s Sports That is Always Overlooked
Women’s sports are a great thing. While the first Modern Olympics in 1896 stupidly prohibited women from competing, they rectified that error by 1900. Since then, women’s sports and athletics has taken off. Title IX promised true equality and it has delivered to the tune of nearly 500,000 female athletes across 19,000 teams. It paved the way for women’s sports leagues like the WNBA, which is now into its third decade of operation. But for all of the wonderful developments brought by women (young and old) competing in sports, there is one main difference that is constantly overlooked when it comes to women’s sports; unlike men’s sports, it is a protected class. This distinction is pertinent because it helps explain the confusion over Caster Semenya.
The real question behind the discussion and debate of Caster Semenya is, “what constitutes a fair and level playing field in women’s sports?” Normally this discussion, if it involves track athletes, revolves around the question of performance enhancing drugs. However, in Semenya’s case, we know that answer to be an unequivocal “no.”
She is absolutely not taking drugs for an advantage. Nor is this a clearcut question of elevated testosterone levels because she is transgender. She is not transgender. Semenya’s elevated testosterone levels are natural to her. She is not cheating. Yet, she does have a decided and unfair advantage over her competitors. In women’s sports, this is acceptable grounds for denial.
But how can somebody that is not cheating, and is competing as her natural self be barred from competition? The answer comes back to that main, yet subtle, difference between men’s and women’s sports. Women’s sports are a protected class.
Almost all women’s sports have rules that women must be the actual competitors. Men cannot play in women’s divisions or weight classes. When men are put on level playing fields with women, they dominate. Even when physically more diminutive than their female counterparts. In order to counteract this difference in biological makeup, we as a society turned women’s sports into a protected class.
This is not only the smart thing to do for safety sake, but because it allows for two distinct divisions in sports. A separation that is necessary and produces a certain level of fairness, which is one of the main reasons for sports to begin with. It is the same thought process that compels different levels and divisions across male sports.
In American collegiate athletics, there are numerous levels and divisions: D-I, II, and III, plus JUCO, and NAIA among others. You would never want to see what the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama would do to the Endicott College Gulls on the football field. This is the same reason you would never want to see what peak Mike Tyson would do against peak Floyd Mayweather (well, maybe some would understandably want to see that).
However, outside of the combat sports, men’s sports are actually “opens.” The reason is that opens allow for the best to compete against the best. We as viewers and as contestants want to see the fastest race the fastest, the springiest jump against the springiest, and the most indefatigable wear down all challengers. There is no height limit nor is there any weight limit to the men’s 100-meter dash or similar events like the high jump or the marathon.
In the dash, we get to see the 6’5, 207 pound Usain Bolt race against the dramatically different bodies of Tyson Gay and Justin Gaitlin. All we want to know who is faster. If there was a woman that could run faster, she would be in the men’s race. But no such woman exists, while there are more than 3,000 men faster than the fastest woman. Not having these divisions robs women of the freedom to compete on equal footing and deprives them of pure unadulterated joy.
With Semenya though, the issue is trickier because she is doing nothing except living her life. A life that has led to two gold medals.
All she wants is to experience that joy and prove she is the fastest woman in the world over a distance of 800 meters. But she is living a life that also bestows an unfair advantage against other women by dint of her having a Y Chromosome as an intersex woman. The life she has led over the last decade has been almost unimaginably brutal and the way she has comported herself should be used as a role model for boys and girls everywhere.
However, this advantage of hers, no matter how natural, is stripping other women of the chance to compete on a level playing field. That is made no more apparent than the three fastest women in the world over 800 meters all happen to be intersex.
This again brings us back to the main distinction between men and women’s sports. Men’s sports are not just for men but are actually for everyone. Men’s sports exist in order to find the fastest or best competitor, regardless of gender, on earth. Women’s sports though have no such luxury. Because women are biologically slower and weaker than men, women’s athletics correctly stipulates that only women can compete.
The International Association of Athletics Federations now deems that to mean only women with–according to them–acceptable testosterone levels. This ruling protects that distinct difference between men’s and women’s sports, even if unfortunately, it is destroying a chance for a great woman, and role model, to compete. And when it comes to women’s sports, they must be protected. The IAAF has now drawn that line in the sand, for better or for worse.