Monday, October 29, 2007

Sex Divisions in Sports

Is there a principled reason why men and women compete separately in sports? Presumably it allows women to compete who wouldn't stand a chance otherwise. But there are many groups of people who don't stand a chance against the world's top athletes. We don't have a separate Olympic division to accommodate non-African sprinters, for example, in addition to non-male ones. So why is sex the relevant way to categorize people here?

(Disclaimer: I really don't know a thing about group differences in athletic performance, and don't care enough to fact-check. This post is based entirely on the stereotypes I've heard. If untrue, amend as appropriate. Or just imagine a possible world which is as described, and consider how our ethical principles would apply in such a case.)

Overweight people would be an even more obviously disadvantaged group, though perhaps the thought is that they could have become world-class athletes if they just tried hard enough, whereas it's just biologically impossible for women to match the most athletic men. That's surely false, though: I'm sure plenty of men are also such that their genetic makeup precludes their ever becoming the world's top athlete. But perhaps the lack of a Y-chromosome is just especially easy to detect. As genetic testing becomes easier, can we expect to see more divisions to accommodate other unathletic genetic groups? What about unchosen environmental impacts, e.g. poor childhood nutrition?

So it seems it isn't fairness/handicap considerations that are in play here after all. Women are not uniquely disadvantaged, so maybe the thought is just that they are unique, simpliciter -- i.e. that men are women are different kinds of beings, in some deep metaphysical sense. An obese white man may be practically incapable of attaining the ideal form of a (male) sprinter, but it is a norm that applies to him nonetheless, in virtue of the kind of being that he is. There is no corresponding failure, it might be thought, on the part of a female Olympic athlete. She has achieved peak fitness as it applies to the kind of being that she is, namely a female. That some men are faster yet is no more relevant to assessing her than is the greater speed of a cheetah.

I suspect this is the sort of picture that underlies our common practices, though the metaphysics seems awfully dubious. Feminists, especially, will be rightly suspicious of essentializing sex differences in such a way. But it does seem to be a more attractive view of elite sport, at least: the point is not just to have equally handicapped people compete for competition's sake. Rather, the competitors should exemplify the peak of athletic excellence, as it applies to the kind(s) of beings that we are (humans, I should think!).

Then again, perhaps there is a more pragmatic story to be told. Elite sports serve an aspiration function, and regardless of the metaphysical facts it's surely true that sex/gender plays a large role in the subjective self-conception of many people. For pragmatic purposes, it's good to have sporting divisions to accommodate the types of beings that we take ourselves to be. So for this reason, it's good to accommodate female athletes, given our contingent cultural circumstances, even though in the ideal post-feminist world there would be no point since solidarity and group identification would not break down along sexed lines.

Any other suggestions?


  1. I believe that there is psychological evidence that in a number of domains women typically don't like competing with men and perform less well when they compete against men.

    From an evolutionary perspective, a person's competition consists of the opposite gender but not of one's own gender in some respects, at least as a first approximation.

  2. It is a fact that metabolism is handled slightly differently in females than in males. For instance, when running a marathon, men "hit the wall"--their aerobic respiration gives out and they begin to rely on anaerobic metabolism. Women (for reasons I haven't taken the time to learn) do not have this phenomenon. The strange thing is that for a long time the difference between the men's world record marathon time and the women's record was over an hour when the statistics first were kept, but today has been narrowed down to about ten minutes. The difference was probably due to a lack of training for women.
    Check it out

    I don't believe that psychological explanation at all; anyone who has competed with a female athlete knows they are just as hardcore as men, and sometimes more so.

    Marathons are one thing, but for some sports (like football, basketball, rugby) the need for gender differentiation is obvious.

  3. Sports are divided by age group as well.

  4. This is something I've thought about as well. There are a few exceptions in both directions --

    There are weight classes in wrestling and boxing. So, you do have segregation in some places based on non-gender properties.

    There are some sports where you have genderless competition, car racing, horse racing, and poker (a game, though, not a sport).

    I could see the case in something like figure skating in which one would be at risk of having to compare radically different styles of artistry, but in activities like billiards in which the game is no different and you are competing based upon skill there does not seem to be any reason for the segregation.

  5. Why there isn't an African and a non-African running division is that the differences between different groups of men are small compared to the differences between men and women. There are top-tier runners from all over the world, even if the distribution is not random; there are not women who can outrun them anywhere in the world.

    The idea of women's sports is to show that, given the biologically different starting points, women are still capable of the same incredible discipline in training and psychology to enable them to perform well in sports.

    The Special Olympics and the Paralympics are similar: people starting from different points can still perform feats of sports heroics. Nobody asks why people with one leg don't compete in the Olympics. It's not cruel or backwards to acknowledge the medical reality that they wouldn't beat the regular Olympic teams.

  6. races are not very clear dividing lines, people we call black could very easily have equal quantities of genes from every major group. Sex is a bit more clear cut.

  7. It's also more acceptable to admit the existence of physical differences between sexes than between races.

  8. Sport is not just an elite activity. For example, I played hockey for 10 years. For my first few seasons teams included both genders, but competed in separate age divisions. From the beginning of high school, boys and girls had separate teams.

    At the adult level, teams were divided by the level of competition. I was never in the top team! In the case of team sports it seems likely that the divisions are aimed at a competitive and interesting game.

    In the case of measured sports (sprinting, weightlifting, high jump etc) it seems to be an artifact of social gender divisions, perhaps propagating upwards from single-sex schools.


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