The Over-Regulation and Under-Protection of the Female Athlete

The Hall of Fame Speech I Never Gave:  

Sport Organizations’ Over-regulation and Under-protection of the Female Athlete

(Ann Peel Class of 2018)

Ann Peel competed for Canada in the racewalk for over fifteen years, winning  medals internationally. Her favourite moment was a victory lap at Madison Square Gardens. She founded Athletes CAN with a group of like-minded athletes, was the Vice-Chair of Athletics Canada, the first Executive Director of Right to Play, and created several community sport initiatives over the years. She continues to use her voice and legal training to advocate for athletes and women in sport.

In August, I was inducted into the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame.  It was a great honour, particularly because I was inducted with my extraordinary coach, John Fitzgerald.  Of course, the honour is not mine alone — there were many people aside from John whose support advanced my career.

At the induction ceremony, I wanted to talk about what I went through as a female athlete because there are still serious problems in sport that need to be interrogated and, hopefully, changed.  I couldn’t speak up that night  because there were young athletes at the ceremony, and I didn’t want to put a damper on their evening, and on their hopes. But, if I could have, this is what I would have said.

Winning medals for Canada was great. But, I’m most proud of using my voice to support athletes, especially women.  Because the people who control sport in Canada and around the world have proven themselves unable to truly welcome and include us.

In my lifetime, women were excluded outright. I had few female role models to look up to in athletics. They did not exist at all in the racewalk. Even though the men’s racewalk had been an Olympic event since 1908, it took almost one hundred years for the women’s racewalk to be included in 1992. Women athletes who excelled in pole vault, triple jump, hammer throw, steeple chase and distance events were also excluded from the Olympics. So many opportunities denied, so many milestones that never materialized. All because we are women.

Until 1972, women were  unable to compete at racing distances longer than 800 metres. Why? The International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was concerned about women’s bodies, namely our physical limitations. The major concern with the triple jump, for example, was that women’s  uteruses might fall out.  A ‘health’ concern with the grueling Olympic training regimen was that it would lead to amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation). In my own case, I not only had to prove myself as an athlete, but had to prove that my ability to reproduce did not affect me as a competitor. After I became pregnant, my carding (Sport Canada Athlete Assistance Program) was cut by 30% as punishment, because I had “intentionally jeopardized my high performance status.” I won that match in the court of public opinion after filing a human rights complaint.

As international sport moved away from the outright prohibition of female participation, the next obsession was to determine who, indeed, qualifies as female. My first experience, of many to come, was at FISU in Japan 1985. I remember arriving at the Athlete Village and being herded into a medical clinic with the other women on the team. We didn’t receive much information, other than that we were about to be tested to determine if we were, in fact, female. Growing up I was often called a ‘tomboy’, as sports-oriented girls were in those days, but no one ever suggested I wasn’t actually female. It was bizarre and unsettling to have my womanhood tested.   Guys in lab coats  pulled out my hair, repeating the process until they decided they had enough of the follicle for a chromosome test.  As far as I understood, since my high school biology classes, gender is more than chromosomes. But as my womanhood was put to the test, I wondered about athletes whose chromosome makeup was less clear. I later learned that at least four female athletes have had to chemically and surgically alter their bodies to be allowed to compete.

Thirty years later, the IAAF continues to hide  behind the rubric of “science” and “women’s health”,  and the body of the female athlete continues to be highly policed. These are, primarily, the bodies of women of colour, and, usually, the bodies of South Asian and Black women. The obvious agenda behind the IAAF’s body-policing would be laughable, if not for the fact that it has caused the dreams of too many athletes to die prematurely.  Their opportunity to compete cut short not by inadvertent rule violations or outright cheating, but by the paternalism of sport organizations.

It is impossible to talk about this problem without talking about South African runner Caster Semenya. A great athlete, clean, and most of all, female.  Her only transgression is being too damn good at the sport she loves. The questions about her body, her genetic composition, and her place in the sport are not questions that men ever have to answer. No one asks what freakish and disqualifying anomaly makes Usain Bolt great, for example. We celebrate his achievements, and his charming flair. But we can’t seem to celebrate the transcendent female athlete, especially when that athlete is a Black woman.

It would also be impossible to talk about the policing of Caster Semenya’s body without noting the people who have done the most to tear her down: her white European competitors, many of whom refused to shake her hand after she won gold in the Rio Olympics.  These women did so, knowing they would be supported and defended by white men who will do their utmost to demean Semenya’s womanhood with a simple slur that carries all the weight of centuries of anti-Black oppression:  “just look at her.” As a result, the IAAF has ruled that Semenya must chemically alter her body in order to continue competing.

Is this the devil’s bargain the female athlete must make? That we accept our bodies will be policed by the men who control our  sports? That white women athletes, powerful enough to compete internationally, are still in need of men’s protection from brown and Black competitors?

Does any of this protect the integrity of sport? Or does this undermine it, instead?

Having used pseudo-science to determine that Semenya’s ‘unusually’ high testosterone levels (which are well below the lowest threshold of the biological male) put into question Semenya’s femininity, the IAAF wants to ban athletes like Semenya unless they submit to hormone treatment. The performance differential for the so-called “DSD” or “High Testosterone” athlete, by the way, is less than 3% in running events.  Their presence has a negligible impact on the sports in which they participate. Who, other than activists, remembers Dutee Chand or Pinki Pramanik? Hormone treatment, on the other hand, is invasive and has very negative health implications.

Let’s be clear on one thing: there are no confirmed cases of men competing as women in international athletics. Why would they? Athletes or not, we are women living in a patriarchal society, and are still subject to misogyny in almost every walk of life.  By making this devil’s bargain, we allow men further control of women’s bodies — Semenya will likely not be the last. Who, and what is next? That’s not a rhetorical question.

What galls me the most about the policing of the female athlete’s body isn’t just the over-reach of sport organizations. It is when organizations choose to leave women alone. That is, when women are actually attacked and under threat.

We have among us a former national team athlete and present-day coach who has been found, by an Independent Investigator, to have abused his power and to have sexually harassed one of the athletes he coached. Another of his athletes is currently competing for our national team. Is Athletics Canada doing anything to protect the athlete he abused, or the female athletes he coaches now? No, they aren’t. Four months later, he remains unsanctioned and free to coach, because Athletics Canada has not named him.* Outside of a select few, no one knows who he is.

A male predator can still coach. The female athlete he victimized has been silenced, as was I for asking questions. This, after the Minister of Sport has made it clear harassment and sexual misconduct will no longer be tolerated in Canadian sport. We’re still protecting the perpetrators. Young female athletes, their parents, and our government, need to know that.

I expect I may, again, have made people uncomfortable. I know that Halls of Fame are supposed to be pure celebration.  But they can’t be. While there are many athletes worthy of celebration, we participate in a sport system that still does not respect the female athlete.

We cannot pretend that this is okay. We must continue to use our voices to ask tough questions, and we must  demand to be heard. Because there are lots of young women following us who deserve a positive sport experience.

I thank all Canadians for the honour bestowed upon me. Both the honour of my induction, and the honour of recognizing my voice.

And with that voice, I want to make my commitment clear: a commitment to the day when women can just train, and just compete. Like the men get to do.

*Post Script: Desai Williams was finally sanctioned in late 2018 with a lifetime ban on coaching in athletics in Canada.