An opinion piece by sociologist Roslyn Kerr, senior lecturer in sociology of sport, from Lincoln University wrote an article on January 18th for The Conversation titled Why it might be time to eradicate sex segregation in sports where she argues against sex segregation in sports. She does publish articles on sports history, leisure studies and sports management and used to be a gymnast so she should have good knowledge—perhaps better than the general public—on anatomy and physiology and how they interact during elite sporting performances. Though is there anything to the argument she provides in her article? Maybe.
The paper is pretty good, though it, of course, uses sociological terms and cites feminist theorists talking about gender binaries in sports and how they’re not ‘fair’. One thing continously brought up in the paper is how there is no way to discern sex regarding sporting competitions (Simpson et al, 1993; Dickinson et al, 2002; Heggie, 2010), with even chromosome-based testing being thrown out (Elsas et al, 2000). which can be seen with the Olympics “still struggling to define gender“. They state that women are put through humiliating tests to discern their sex.
They use this to buttress their own arguments which are based off of what bodies of disables athletes did: whether or not one competed in a particular sport was not on their disability, per se, but the functionality of their own bodies. As an example, sporting bodies used to group people with, say, a similar spinal injury even though they had different physical abilities. Call me crazy, but I most definitely see the logic that these authors are getting at, and not only because I ruminated on something similar back in the summer in an article on transgendered athletes in sports, writing:
This then brings up some interesting implications. Should we segregate competitions by race since the races have strength and weaknesses due to biology and anatomy, such as somatype? It’s an interesting question to consider, but I think we can all agree on one thing: Women should compete with women, and men should compete with men. Thus, transgenders should compete with transgenders.
Of course I posed the question regarding different races since they have different strengths and weaknesses on average due to evolution in different environments. Kerr and Obel (2017) conclude (pg 13):
Numerous authors have noted that the current two-sex classification system is problematic. They argued that it does not include all bodies, such as intersex bodies, and more importantly, does not work to produce fair competition. Instead, some argued that other traits that we know influence sporting success should be used to classify bodies. In this article, we extended this idea through using the ANT concepts of assemblage and black box. Specifically, we interpreted the current understanding of the body that sex segregation is based on as a black box that assumes the constant superiority of the male body over the female. But we argued that with the body understood as an assemblage, this classification could be reassembled so that this black box is no longer given. Instead we argued that by identifying the multiple traits that make up the assemblage of sporting success, sex classification becomes irrelevant and that it is these traits that we should use to classify athletes rather than sex. Drawing on the example of disability sport we noted that the black box of a medical label was undone and replaced with an emphasis on functionality with different effects for each sport. This change had the effect of undoing rigid medical disability label and enabling athletes’ bodies to be viewed as assemblages consisting of various functional and potentially changing physical abilities. We used this discussion to propose a model of classified that eliminated the need for sex segregation and instead used physical measures such as LBM and VO2 capabilities to determine an athlete’s competitive class.
All of their other arguments aside that I disagree with in their paper (their use of ‘feminist theory’, gendered divisions, short discussions and quotes from other authors on the ‘power structure’ of males), I definitely see the logic here and, in my opinion, it makes sense. Anyway, those shortcomings aside, the actual argument of using anatomy and physiology and seeing which different parts work in concert to produce elite athletic performance in certain sports then having some kind of test, say, the Heath-Carter method for somatype (Wilmore, 1970) to a test of Vo2 max (Cureton et al, 1986) to even lean body mass (LBM).
Healy et al (2014) studied 693 elite athletes in a post-competition setting. They assesed testosterone, among other variables such as aerobic performance. They observed a difference of 10 of between men and women’s LBM and that it exclusively accounts for the “observed diffences in strength and aerobic performance seen between the sexes” while they conclude:
We have shown that despite differences in mean testosterone level between genders, there is complete overlap of the range of concentrations seen. This shows that the recent decision of the IOC and IAAF to limit participation in elite events to women with ‘normal’ serum testosterone is unsustainable.
Yes, this testosterone-influences-sports-performance is still ongoing. I’ve covered it a bit last year, and while I believe there is a link between testosterone and athletic ability and have provided some data and a few anecdotes from David Epstein, I do admit that the actual literature is scant with conclusive evidence that testosterone positively influences sport performance. Either way, if testosterone truly does infer an advantage then, of course, the model (which Kerr and Obel admit is simple at the moment) will need to be slightly revised. Arguments and citations can be found in this article written back in the summer on whether or not transgender MtFs should compete with women. This is also directly related to the MtF who dominated women a few months back.
Either way, the argument that once we better identify anatomic and physiologic causes for differences in certain sporting competition, this could, in theory, be used instead of sex segregation. I think it’s a good idea personally and to see how effective it could be there should be a trial run on it. Kerr and Obel state that it would make competition more ‘fair’. However, Sanchez et al, 2014 cite Murray (2010) who writes “fair sports competition does not require that athletes be equal in every imaginable respect.”
At the end of the day, what a lot of this rests on is whether or not testosterone infers athletic advantage at the elite level and there is considerable data for both sides. It’ll be interesting to see how the major sporting bodies handle the question of testosterone in sports and transgenders and hyperandrogenic females.
Personally, I think there may be something to Kerr and Obel’s arguments in their paper (feminist/patriarchy garbage aside) since it’s based on anatomy and physiology which is what we see on the field. However, it can also be argued that sex/gender is manifested in the brain which then infers other advantages/disadvantages in sports. Nonetheless, I think the argument in the paper is sound (the anatomy and physiology arguments only). For instance, we can look at one sport, say, 100 m dash, and we can say “OK, we know that sprinters have meso-ecto somatypes and that combined with the RR ACTN3 genotype, that confers elite athletic performance (Broos et al, 2016).” We could use those two variables along with leg length, foot length etc and then we can test—both in the lab and on the field—which variables infer advantages in certain sports. Another sport we can think of is swimming. Higher levels of body fat with wide clavicles and chest cavity are more conducive to swimming success. We could use those types of variables for swimming and so on.
Of course, this method may not work or it may only work in theory but not work in practice. Using lean body mass, Vo2 max etc etc based on which sport is in question may be better than using the ‘sex binary’, since some women (trust me, I’ve trained hundreds) would be able to compete head-to-head with men and, if for nothing else, it’d be good entertainment.
However, in my opinion, the logic on using anatomy and physiology instead of sex to segregate in sports is intriguing and, if nothing else, would finally give feminists (and non-feminists) the ‘equality’ they ask for.