4. “I Know One When I See One”: Sport and Sex Identification in an Age of Gender Mutability

From: Game Changer

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On the eve­ning of August 11, 2012, Caster Semenya made a late race charge on the final straightaway to win the silver medal in the ­ women’s 800 m race at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. The twenty-­ one-­ year-­ old athlete had captured her first Olympic medal, but the road to the final would be littered with social roadblocks and cultural potholes. Raised in the northern South African city of Fairlie, in the province of Limpopo, Semenya showed an affinity for athletics from an early age. She excelled at sports, and her strong physique was an asset to ­ these endeavors, ­ until she reached the elite level of track and field. Then, rather quickly, the body that had enabled her to reach the highest level of the sport became a prob­ lem—­ for its seemingly unwomanly appearance and ability. The rhe­ toric about “freakish” bodies producing unnatural per­ for­ manceshasbeenafamiliarrefrainwithinmodernsocietyandcon­temporary sport.1 Yet the popu­ lar my­ thol­ ogy about sport is that competitions should be fair, and in this fairness the best man, ­ woman, or body should win.2 Over the past few de­ cades, however, it has been harder for publics, competitors , and governing bodies to willingly ignore the profound ways in which athletes, their bodies, and, subsequently, the sports they love have changed with new and emerging technoscience. It is this turn that makes one won­ der if recent technoscience, from blood-­ boosting phar­ ma­ ceu­ ti­ cals to feather-­ light shoes, ­ will make the ­ human athlete, as we currently think we know him or her, obsolete. Are we at the precipice of a conceptual shift 4 “I Know One When I See One” Sport and Sex Identification in an Age of Gender Mutability Evaluating Bodies 132 in sporting competitions whereby athletes’ bodies simply mediate a new and potentially more impor­ tant set of competitions between scientists, engineers, and designers? Possibly, but in the current fanatical sport moment it is unclear if ­ either consuming publics or sport governing bodies­ will allow sport to openly make this transition. Nevertheless, as emerging technoscience demands a reconceptualization of what sport is and is not, it is ­ running into a host of historically rooted social, cultural, and po­ liti­ cal affordances. For Semenya’s sport of track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations regularly grapples with emerging technoscience but has been in­ effec­ tive in legislating it away from its playing fields. The historical interweaving of the body and technoscience has created a world in which the cyborg nature of sport is becoming increasingly self-­ evident. Instead of following debates about the ways in which sport governing entities attempt to protect their brands and the illusion that their competitions are contests between bodies of approved athletes, the early ­ running­ career of Caster Semenya illustrates why a cyborg ideal might positively transform sport and provide an ave­ nue to consider the ways in which cyborg athletes are “about transgressed bound­aries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive ­ people might explore as one part of needed po­liti­cal work.”3 In a similar way, Semenya and her body can be seen as queering the sport of track and field. Semenya and the questions surrounding her gender identity and seemingly non-normative body are ready-­ made for thoughtful and sophisticated queer analyses, and many scholars have eloquently taken up this task.4 This chapter does not deny the value and importance of this work; however, in this study on technoscience and sport, the cyborg meta­ phor and its conceptualization of the body within multifaceted technoscientific infrastructures is the analytic pathway this chapter follows. From a critical technoscientific perspective, the questioning and subsequent testing of Semenya’s body demands that we not only examine the social and cultural formations that expect a clean and tidy sex or gender outcome but confirm that the technoscientific testing itself is a dubious method for producing a verifiable truth. If we question the truth-­ making outputs of gender or sex verification testing, it is pos­ si­ ble to positively deploy this interpretive flexibility to rethink and reconfigure­ future sporting competitions. More specifically, the key question to ask is, Sport and Sex Identification 133 what is at stake for a sporting culture if it abandons long-­ held constructions of the natu­ ral athletic body based on outdated sex differences and replaces and revises it with the contemporarily more relevant cyborg athlete? Getting a sporting culture such as track and field to make this transition...


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Subject Headings

  • Sports -- Technological innovations.
  • Sports -- Physiological aspects.
  • Performance technology.
  • Doping in sports.
  • Sports sciences.
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