Sexism roundup week one: witch-hunting becomes Olympic

8 Aug

by Jo Johnson

Actually, it started before week one, with the news that the Olympic Committee will be testing any women athletes doing suspiciously well at their sport or come across too “masculine”. The IOC started a hunt for hyperandrogenism. The scenario appeared like a medieval witch hunt, only the herbs were replaced by hormoneas the devilish substance.

Hyperandrogenism is a condition in which a woman’s androgen levels are considerably high. Androgens,

Caster Semenya, who was at centre of gender row in 2009

Caster Semenya, who was at centre of gender row in 2009

which include testosterone, are hormones commonly considered to be “male” hormones, although all women have a certain amount in their bodily system. The IOC is arguing that a naturally raised level of androgens gives a female athlete an unfair advantage over her peers.

It’s an extremely oversimplified view of things. There’s plenty of research suggesting that raised testosterone levels alone do not provide any significant advantages. This was articulated very well on Women’s Hour this week. Many women with hyperandrogenism even have a complete immunity to the effects of testosterone – meaning although they have higher levels than the supposed average woman, their bodies do not respond to it in any way.

There also hasn’t been a rush to test high performing athletes for any other kind of genetic condition that might give them an advantage, like mitochondrial conditions that result in increased efficiency in respiration. The latter have been found for some runners. Or Marfan’s Syndrome, which can be an advantage in sports like swimming or basketball.

Nope, it seems it’s sex and gender that people have got their knickers in a twist about. Mostly because women, now that there are fewer barriers to their participation in sport, are performing some pretty outstanding physical feats. And a lot of people simply can’t believe they’re doing it. So obviously, they must be men in disguise. How else can they be SO GOOD?

Ye Shiwen

Ye Shiwen after winning 400m freestyle and breaking world record

This brings me smartly on to the case of Ye Shiwen, a 16 year old Chinese swimmer, who absolutely smashed the 400m individual medley and won gold. She beat her personal best by five seconds, and swam the last 50m of the race quicker than the men’s champion. The first assumption was that she was doping. The USA swimming coach was quick to label her performance as “disturbing”. Which speaks volumes; obviously a girl beating a boy at sport can’t be anything other than disturbing.

She’s upsetting the idea that women are and always will be weaker and slower than men, and the patriarchy does not like it. She passed her doping test, but how sad that when a woman performs such an amazing feat of athleticism, she is immediately assumed to be cheating. When Usain Bolt did something similar on the track, he became an instant hero. Clearly, many people are not as pro-woman as they think they are.

And Thursday we were treated to an article in the Telegraph that would have made a Victorian physician look

Gemma Gibbons celebrates her win over Purevjargal

Gemma Gibbons celebrates her win over Purevjargal

like a moderate, pragmatic feminist. Andrew Brown shared his insights on women’s judo with us, and very gripping it was too (aha!). It seems that, rather than celebrating a display of immense skill, strength, co-ordination and discipline, which lead to a medal for Gemma Gibbons of Team GB (the first for GB in judo for 12 years), Andrew was a tad more concerned for their “soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises”. Andrew wonders whether watching two women fighting is a “wholesome” spectator sport. I put it to him that it is as wholesome as watching two men beating the crap out of each other in the boxing ring, or smashing each other on a rugby pitch. If you don’t like fighting or contact sports, that’s fine, but don’t be a massive sexist about it, it does nothing for your argument.

Sport is an arena where sexism still, largely, goes unchecked. Where mainstream society does not question the chronic poor fundingcrap reporting and downright abysmal amount of respect that women athletes get, or rather, don’t get. Women athletes are constantly reduced to their appearance, expected to balance out their athleticism by presenting as very feminine, and are ripped by the gutter press if they don’t. Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith articulated the situation very well when she ripped some sexist tweeters apart on her blog.

And so, there is a long way to go, but to leave you on a happy note; in women’s football GB played Brazil, at Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 70,000 people. That, sisters and allies, is something I never expected to see in my lifetime.


Jo Johnson
Jo Johnson studies Sport Science at Leeds Met and just finished a two year sabbatical at the Student’s Union. She is a member of the NUS National Executive Council and the NUS Women’s Committee. Nevertheless, all views are – surprise! – her own. Follow her on Twitter @jo_johnson13


This article was originally published on 5 Rings 4 Diversity. Thanks to them and Jo Johnson for letting us reblog. 

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