Competitive sports have historically been separated by gender. In high school, I never noticed the distinction between male and female sports teams until players on the female basketball team noted their discontent with their team name, “The Lady Senators,” relative to the male team, which was simply titled “The Senators.” I realized that I would also be bothered if my team name were distinguished solely by my gender and reduced to a label such as “The Man Senators.”
There is no reason why one gender should be titled in accordance with another. The very nature of the issue has made me question why the gender separation in sports exists, and if co-ed sports are really a possibility.
When addressing the plausibility of co-ed sports, it’s crucial to note that men generally have higher testosterone levels than women, which can account for different performance levels. However, it’s the physical and social factors ingrained in us that often make the experience of co-ed competition uncomfortable for many individuals. Throughout the past century, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has struggled to find the best way to identify an athlete’s gender without making the process embarrassing or outright discriminatory. The process to distinguish gender has evolved from nude parades to chromosomes to the current method: testing hormone levels.
For example, even before South African sprinter Caster Semenya dominated the women’s 800-metre race at the 2016 Rio Olympics, fellow athletes questioned her gender and the fairness of competing against her due to her naturally high testosterone levels. In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) prevented women with testosterone levels higher than 10 nanomoles per litre from competing in international competitions. Women with higher testosterone levels had to either take hormone-suppressing drugs or have hormone reduction therapy in order to compete. This ban was lifted in 2015 after an IAAF court concluded that a slight increase in testosterone for women did not account for a more significant advantage than any other natural physical ability.
That being said, hormone testing has sparked an important question that needs to be addressed: why is natural genetic variation policed in female athletes but celebrated in men?
At U of T, although co-ed sports exist in intramural leagues, some sports have changed their rules to better adhere to both men and women. For example, in co-ed basketball, men are not allowed to step inside the key, and if they do, a referee will enforce a turnover and the ball will be awarded to the other team.
Although these rules are positive efforts to have men and women compete together, restricting men from getting rebounds or charging toward the basket fails to properly incorporate both genders into an even game.
The separation of gender in competitive sports is so ingrained in our culture that the subject is one we hardly think about. But the separation is, by-and-large, unnecessary. During the same period of time we have seen athletic institutions struggle to identify gender in a way that treats women as equals, Semenya has performed and won at the highest level possible, proving that the value of gold can’t be distinguished by gender.