Did Semenya Ever Stand a Chance?


The University of Michigan Big House

Attending a university as large as The University of Michigan, sports play a predominantly large role in student’s lives. Whether students attend every Michigan football game, read ESPN’s sports coverage daily, or are only informed of the latest sports news via social media, sports are almost inescapable on campus. Few people however, spend their time pondering the importance of sports. The study of sports is essential, as they tend to reflect preexisting social notions. The LSA Theme semester allows students to better understand the relationship between sports and society by analyzing their purpose and further provoking cultural awareness.

The existence of socially constructed gender roles in society is strongly paralleled in modern day sports. Caster Semenya’s experience competing in the World Championships is a prime example of society’s irresistible desire to categorize individuals based on their gender. Normally an exciting and supportive time, Semenya’s victory at the World Championships was shortly celebrated. Spectators were unable to look past Semenya’s identification as intersex. Semenya’s “breathtakingly butch” appearances not only prompted viewers to question Semenya’s gender but her ability to compete. While Semenya was raised female, her body contained much more testosterone than the average female. Individual’s claimed that her biology stood out as a “potential advantage over competitors.” Spectators were unable to ignore Semenya’s contrast of society’s definition of a female. Society’s need to group all individuals into the categories of male and female ostracizes individuals that do not fall into either category.

Caster Semenya

The tendency of sports to follow traditional notions of gender roles reinforces the preexisting societal notion of hegemonic-masculinity. Society’s confidence in the capabilities of women, while improving, continues to be less than men. Hegemonic-masculinity not only categorizes women as physically weaker than men but often places women in highly sexualized scenarios. This idea continues to be present in modern day sports.

Semenya’s first mistake in entering the World Championships was her inability to look feminine. Semenya’s muscular structure and low voice triggered spectators to question her gender. Individuals proceeded to question her right to compete as well because of her contrasting of hegemonic-masculinity’s ideal female body type.

Professor LaVaque-Manty’s The Playing Fields of Eton briefly acknowledges the distinction between the treatment of men and women in the history of sports by comparing the female gender to a disability. LaVaque-Manty mentions the greater attraction of spectators to male sports rather than female because policy one disallowed spectators from attending female sports to preserve their modesty. Today modern day female athletes are sexualized to gain more viewers.

Players of the Lingerie Football League

Would Semenya’s success have been questioned if her appearance had been aligned with stereotypical gender ideals? If Semenya’s body was less “butch” and her voice was higher pitched, would she have passed for female? Would spectators have accepted her victory?

The impact of gender roles in sports is but one way in which sports are intertwined with society. However, the LSA theme semester provides students with crucial guidance and tools that will help them to better understand these notions. Hopefully the opportunity to explore these ideas will contribute to further progression of abolishing traditional ideals not only in sports but also in society.