Protected Competition


Look, if we want to stay in shape we have to exercise. Exercise is boring, and so we won’t do it unless we can challenge ourselves by adding some kind of skill to what’s otherwise just raw movement. Now we’ve upgraded to playing a sport. But a sport is boring, and so we won’t play it unless we can challenge each other by making it competitive.

If you don’t like competition you can get off (what you regard as this train to perdition) at any point. But if you’re riding the train let’s not hear you whining about competition damaging the fat kid’s self-esteem. And by the way, the fat kid isn’t stupid. Giving everyone a participation ribbon at the close of the school’s Field Day doesn’t make him feel any the less a loser.

But what we can do – and what we have done – is create protected categories of competitors. For example, a disabled athlete can compete in an abled-athletic competition, but not the other way around. A boxer can fight above his weight class but not below it. And yes, there are even summer camps for fat kids only. Where we draw the line – how fat is fat? – might have to be arbitrary. But that’s no different than the arbitrariness of the drinking or driving or voting age.

But whereas weight is something that can easily be measured, disability may require a tad more sensitivity. Fortunately, for the purposes of competition at least, the disabled want to be considered disabled. So the only question is whether they’re disabled enough.

And the same will be true of gender. In most sports women are happy to be regarded as women so they don’t have to compete against men. But occasionally they want to “C’mon, bring it on!” And when they do they often find that men have made being male a protected category. Why? Not because we’re afraid of the competition. Maybe because we find it unchivalrous to beat a woman. But mostly, I suspect, it’s because it would turn something that was erstwhile macho into something, well, girly.

As a man, I have no problem making my manhood a protected category. Guys’ night out at the pub becomes something completely different when it’s replaced with couples’ night at the tapas bar. But the issue that athletic organizations – from grade school to amateur to professional to Olympic – are currently struggling with is the very opposite. It’s when we men want to crash the hen party. And what makes this issue especially challenging is that it’s not one issue but several. At a minimum it’s the following three:

There are erstwhile males – at least according to their birth certificates – who’ve undergone a full physical conversion to female. Are they to be allowed into the protected category of female? There are males – at least according to their birth certificates – who simply self-identify as female. Should they be allowed into the protected category? And, finally, there are females – at least according to their birth certificates – who have natural testosterone levels that give them a significant advantage over their sisters. Should they be expelled from the protected category?

In all three cases, no matter what we do it’s going to seem unfair. But it’s an unfairness born not of anyone’s bigotry but of the way we’ve all carved up the world. For most humans, musculature, genitalia, orientation, and demeanor, come packaged within certain parameters recognizable by the man on the Clapham omnibus. But for these three categories of people these properties have come apart. It’s easy to say, Well, we’re just going to have to re-jig our gender concepts. Of course we are. But the question is precisely how.

One thing we can do, I suppose, is look at musculature the way we look at weight. We don’t care about your genitalia or testosterone levels or orientation or demeanor, any more than we do your eye color. All we care about is your muscle mass to weight ratio, or something like that.

This might work for some sports, but what about female body builders? Body building, not unlike figure skating, is an aesthetic sport, and the aesthetics of it are very different for men and women. The judge would be comparing Greyhounds to Chihuahuas, and so the winner would be the equivalent of best in show. We could do this, of course. But Greyhounds and Chihuahuas don’t want to compete against each other. It might seem more fair. And no doubt it is. But Greyhounds would regard this new sport as too, well, Chihuahua-ish.

I could rehearse a dozen more problem cases, but the bottom line is probably clear. We were doing just fine before these ‘borderline’ people forced us to rethink how we carve up the athletic world. But it’s not just athletics. It’s also washrooms and paternity leaves, the pop charts and the Academy Awards. No more top male vocalist. No more best supporting actress. It’s a brave new world for which we’re as yet conceptually ill-equipped. We’ll get there. But in the meantime we’re going to feel ourselves trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Okay, this has been helpful, but not very. Let’s see if we can do better.

On the assumption that form follows function, we might want to ask ourselves what we want competition to do for us. Are we just playing “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!”? If so, then why not just assign each of us a fat kid to compete against? Then tomorrow he can compete against an even fatter kid, and so on. That way there’ll only be one loser on the whole playground. I’m guessing some white guy can take home the gold in the prestigious hundred meters if we don’t let any black guys compete in it. But would that be a medal to be all that proud of?

So I’m guessing there may be something else – or at least something in addition – that we’re trying to achieve here. Could it be – excellence? That would explain why winning against a particularly slow field in one of the qualifying heats – and you can see this on the face of the winner – is not much of a victory. Even the winner of the final has less to celebrate if he doesn’t beat his own previous best.

So if this is right, then winning plays second fiddle to upping one’s game. And if this is right, then the question to ask is not what grouping of competitors is fair, but rather what grouping is most likely to promote personal bests, the personal best even of the runner who comes in dead last.

If running in a league of one’s own will achieve that end, fine. But that’s unavailable to the three types of people we’re talking about here, since she (assuming we should call her that) has no ‘own’. So instead she needs to run in the league that will most propel her. If running with the men will just discourage her, then run with the women. If running with the women won’t be enough of a challenge, then run with the men. If running with neither will do it for her then she should just find something else to do with her time.

But what about the other woman alongside whom she’s elected to compete? She’s in the same position our ‘butch’ woman would have been in if she’d elected to compete against the men. But unlike our butch woman, there is no protected butch-free class to which she can downgrade. In asking that Caster Semenya be barred from competing with other women, what one’s asking is that we create such a class. [Insert link.] But if we accede to creating a butch-free class, why not a fit-free class. And eventually we’re back to each of us having our own fat kid to run against.

So it seems to me that not just Semenya but any woman should be allowed to compete in any sport against the men, unless those men are prepared to acknowledge that this would undermine the masculinity of the sport, which, not unlike guy’s night out, should they so wish they have a right to protect, dammit.

To suppose otherwise – to suppose we do not have a right to decide who we’ll play with – is to take athletics out of the realm of play and place it alongside access to housing, entrance to law school, and eligibility for government employment. And in fact this is precisely what’s been happening, as athletics have become springboards to participation in more lucrative activities, like product endorsement.

So, it would seem, we’ve come a long way from just getting some exercise. It’s about getting fit, being king of the castle, being queen of the castle, and/or striving for excellence. But it’s also about access to positions higher up in the social pecking order. In short, it’s political.

The fat kid knows this. So does the ugly kid. So does the black kid. The rest of us, for whom such access is more automatic, tend not to know it. That’s why we think of play as just play. That’s why we think the way puppies tumble about is just cute, when in fact they’re campaigning for office. That’s why we think the way kittens pounce on each other is just adorable, when in fact, but for their domestication, they’re preparing for nature red in tooth and claw.

So in any competition, I think we should decide beforehand whether we’re going to be just playing or whether we’re going to be playing for keeps. If we’re just playing, then let each of us pick our playmates. If I don’t want to play with you, go find someone who does. But if the latter – if we’re playing to see who gets the million for pretending to like some breakfast cereal – then we’ve moved to the language of marketing. And then what’s at issue is whether the kids to whom the cereal is being marketed are keeping track of who was and was not allowed on the track. My guess is they’re not. All they’re going by is face appeal. But in that case, outside of South Africa, Caster Semenya has a few strikes against her beyond the field against which she placed first, or where she would have placed had she been forced to run against the men.

Does the breakfast cereal industry have an obligation to be inclusive, in this case of black butches, in its advertising campaigns? Does the fat kid have the right not just to run but to be elected class president? These are both political decisions, to be made in the first case by ad executives, in the second by the teacher or the principal. And so likewise it is political how, more generally, we’re handling the demands of transsexual, transgendered, and butch individuals, and those who feel victimized by those demands.

Since I fall into none of these categories, I think it only fair to recuse myself from voting on these questions. Otherwise it would be a bit like a man presuming to have a say on the abortion issue. Besides, as Lincoln is reputed to have put it, sometimes it’s better to remain silent and be thought a [bigot] than open your mouth and remove all doubt.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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