Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gender cheating

If you look at the accumulation of comments on Soccer Lens' "The 15 Greatest Sports Cheats of All Time" you would think the biggest controversy is whether Maradona's "hand of god" goal in the 1980s was worse than boxing coach Panana Lewis's tactics that lead to the loss of vision in a fighter Billy Collins, Jr. and, indirectly, his death. Or why Marion Jones was left off the list.
Of course I think the biggest controversy was the inclusion of Stella Walsh. Walsh was a track & field athlete from Poland who, it was discovered after her death, to be intersex. She had a set of XX and XY chromosomes. So according to the people at Soccer Lens, Walsh was a cheat. This is despite the fact that she passed--passed!--the gender verification test which consisted of a physical examination of her genitals. There was suspicion throughout her career, the writers say, that Walsh was a man.
Except, that she wasn't a man. She was clearly raised and lived as a woman--a woman who had what some would call atypical sex chromosomes for a woman. But the writers assume a few problematic things.
One, that Walsh was aware of her condition and purposely duped people. This is highly unlikely. After all, Walsh did pass her gender verification test in 1936. Why would she think her genitals were any different from other women's? I know there is a lot of comparing going on among the men folk and I have to say, not so much among women. In general, and especially in Stella Walsh's day, there wasn't a whole lot of encouragement given to women to actually learn how their bodies looked and worked. Remember, she was pre-hand mirror/consciousness-raising.
And two, many many female athletes are accused of being men. That Walsh--a successful female athlete--suffered those accusations says nothing about her intersex status. It is a tactic that is still employed today.
In short, Walsh was not a cheat. That she was even included on this list is outrageous. But it was actually not that surprising to me when I read about another "gender cheat" that the Soccer Lens people included: Dora Ratjen. Ratjen competed for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. Ratjen was a high jumper. She was also a he. Ratjen is the only documented case in the history of the modern Olympics of a man masquerading as a woman. And he did so because he was compelled to so by the Nazi regime. Is it a case of cheating--yes. Later in his life, Ratjen admitted his deceit. So, yes, it was a case of cheating. But "Hitler made me do it" is one of the best excuses I have ever heard. Is what Ratjen--who didn't even medal in the 36 Games--did worse than some of the other cheaters from the past and present. (Ahem--Manny Ramirez anyone?)
In other words, these writers seem to have some issues with gender ambiguity. And they vilify the non-conformers while failing to recognize how these situations are either 1) not actual cheating or 2) not nearly as egregious as other cheating scandals. Because maintenance of proper gender roles is clearly of utmost importance to many people--especially when we are talking about sports. And a woman's conformity is always already called into question when she enters the world of sport. Some have a need for very clear, unbreachable boundaries based on sex/gender when it comes to sport.


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