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kottke.org posts about Caster Semenya

The Winter Olympics, male & female physiology, and socially constructed bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

This is a fascinating thread by Milena Popova about the differing performances of male and female athletes at the Winter Olympics. As they point out, humans are sexually dimorphic but the story doesn’t end there. Bodies are also socially constructed.

Physiology is a thing, but physiology is shaped and mediated by our social context.

Look back at those pictures of “women”. Those petite, delicate bodies, those faces we process as “beautiful”. Those are the qualities that globally dominant Western cultures associate with “femininity”.

And sport is one of the institutions that fiercely guards and reproduces dominant ideas about gender, masculinity and femininity. This plays out differently in different sports.

Generally, men and women compete separately. And for the purposes of sport “men” and “women” are defined as people whose bodies were assigned male or female at birth and whose gender matches that assignment.

The obvious example here is South African runner Caster Semenya. But Popova continues with a more subtle (and admittedly speculative) situation:

Now, what really gets me is snowboarding. Because on the face of it that’s not a sport that’s judged on the same gendered criteria of artistry and aesthetics as figure skating or gymnastics.

You’d think under all the skiing gear, helmets, scarves and goggles, it would be quite hard to perform femininity.

And still, as my friend whom I made watch slope style and half pipe for the first time in her life last night pointed out, the body types of the men and women riders are really rather different. You can tell even under all the gear.

And that translates to performance. Women get an amplitude of about 3m above the half pipe, men about 4-5m. The best women do 1080s (three revolutions), the best men 1440s (four revolutions).

But much like any other subculture snowboarding reproduces hierarchical structures. Moves are named after people, some people find it easier to access than others (hint: it’s a massively expensive sport), some people set trends.

One of the structures it reproduces is a gendered hierarchy. It’s a very masculine culture. Women find it harder to access the sport, find it harder to be taken seriously as athletes in their own right rather than “just hangers-on”.

And I have the sneaky suspicion that because the people with the most subcultural capital tend to be men and they decide whom they will admit and accept to the community, there are certain looks and body types of women who find it less hard (not easy!) to gain access.

And those happen to be the body types that may find it harder to do 1440s and to get 5m amplitude above the half pipe.

Another example from figure skating is Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who landed a backflip on one skate in a performance at the 1998 Olympics. While backflips weren’t banned because of Bonaly’s relative ease in performing them (as claimed here), her athletic style was outside the norm in women’s figure skating, in which traditional femininity is baked right into the rules & judging. This was also a factor in Tonya Harding’s career (as depicted in I, Tonya).

Anyway, super interesting to think about.

Did Caster Semenya deliberately throw the 800 meters?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2012

From Slate, some speculation that Caster Semenya sandbagged the 800 meter final in order to avoid further gender-related scrutiny.

After the race, track and field aficionados questioned her tactics. The BBC’s David Ornstein said it appeared that Semenya “had more left in the tank.” His story quoted BBC commentator Kelly Holmes, who won this event in the 2004 Olympics, suggesting that Semenya hadn’t made her best effort: “She looked very strong, she didn’t look like she went up a gear, she wasn’t grimacing at all. I don’t know if her head was in it, when she crossed the line she didn’t look affected.” Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden tweeted that Semenya “seemed oddly disengaged most of race and not tired at end.”

I watched the race and Semenya’s finish was odd…she made her move super-late and was moving at a tremendous pace when she crossed the line. Had she worked her way up to the front before the final turn, she may have beaten the field by several lengths.

Update: Here is a more nuanced analysis of Semenya’s effort in the 800 meter final.

Perhaps there is nothing to her performance other than that she runs a more even pace than her rivals.

A comparison between her semi-final and this race is interesting in this regard. In that semi, she went through 400m in just over 58 seconds, 600m in about 1:28 and then closed the final 200m in 29.5s, looking like she had something in reserve.

Tonight, she went through 400m in 57.69s, then through 600m in about 1:27.1, and then closed in a touch over 30 seconds. My point is, her performance in the final was slightly faster at every stage than the semi, until she closed slower over the final 200m. To finish SLOWER than she did in the semi implies that she has little reserve and that she is closer to the limit than she looks. She wasn’t actually that fast over the final 200m, it’s just that everyone else was very slow!

(via @andrewsmit)

Caster Semenya cleared to compete

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2010

After sitting out 11 months awaiting the results of gender testing, runner Caster Semenya has been cleared to compete in IAAF-sanctioned competitions. For some background, check out this New Yorker piece on Semenya from last November.

Caster Semenya, something magnificent

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 25, 2009

Ariel Levy did a piece on runner Caster Semenya for the New Yorker this week. Semenya’s competition eligibility is up in the air because the IAAF (the worldwide governing body for track and field) can’t decide whether she is a woman or a man.

She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.

Love that quote.