Caster Semenya and women at the Olympics

I just came across this excellent article about gender and Olympic disciplines or competitive sport more generally, starting with the case of gold-medal winning runner Caster Semenya who has faced so much controversy over whether she should be allowed to compete as a woman:

It made me think of the many conversations about the ancient Olympics I have had over the years. One difference that is easy to point out, and to feel a bit smug about, is the fact that women were completely banned from the whole area during the days of the festival – all but one, that is, namely one priestess of a nearby sanctuary.

Here is what Pausanias (5.6.7-8) says:

As you go … along the road to Olympia , before you cross the Alpheius river, there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira ….

Callipateira was a widow who disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son Peisidorus to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, revealed too much of her body. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip naked before entering the arena.

Bronze statuette of a (probably Spartan) woman runner, C6th BC.

Bronze statuette of a (probably Spartan) woman runner, C6th BC.

There were competitions for women, too, but at a different time altogether. And, characteristically for ancient Greek sources, we hardly hear anything about them (Pausanias gives an overview in two paragraphs, 5.16.2-3). There was  only one discipline, namely running 5/6 of the length of the stadium (men ran the whole length of just under 200m). Only unmarried girls could compete (so the oldest were probably rarely above sixteen), and they were divided in races for three age groups.

So there was a sports competition for women in Olympia, but well segregated, with far fewer spectators, and it is unlikely that many cities far from Olympia would have found it worthwhile to send competitors – this was almost certainly a much more a local affair. Similar competitions may have happened elsewhere, for example in Sparta, and may have played a role in determining eligibility (or marketability, to be blunt) for marriage.

I have to admit that I often avoid thinking about ancient Greek attitudes to women. I mostly work on areas of history which, when recorded by men in a male culture, hardly ever even feature women, such as politics, war, and scholarly pursuits. This can’t reflect reality: women did not play great roles in public life, but we have to assume that writers report events as they thought they should have been, not necessarily as they were – and to them that meant without female contribution. It’s not as if that problem is entirely unknown even today, of course: women are still written out of history, and online at least, angry men actually work hard to keep it that way.

One thing we must never do is to look at this past and use it to feel smug about ourselves. Yes, things are better, and women can be spectators and athletes at the Olympics. But the closer I look, the more I realise how far there is still to go. There are the simple almost commonplace issues of women’s achievements not being rated as high as men’s, or women being defined by the men around them.

And then, there is Caster Semenya, whose 800m win this week predictably re-opened the debate about sport and gender – in fact plenty of commentators hardly focused on

Caster Semenya of South Africa, qualifying for the 800m final, Rio 2016.

Caster Semenya of South Africa, qualifying for the 800m final, Rio 2016.

anything else but the question of what to do with a woman who has too much natural testosterone for a ‘proper’ (hence more feeble) woman. This is why I was so struck by  the excellent article which prompted this piece – because it did not just point out the usual ways in which women are put in their place (firmly behind men, of course), but started to question some of the basic assumptions behind differences between female and male sports.


There is surely no question that there are, on average, physical differences between men and women, e.g. in terms of average height and strength, but, as the article points out, the way in which competitions have been divided by gender does not necessarily make good sense in every discipline. Those fairly standard differences aren’t necessarily the most relevant ones in all kinds of sports. For example, I never understood why women didn’t compete with men in ski jumping, which, for a long time, meant women were not competing at all (one competition for women was finally included in Sochi 2014). In this case, it can hardly be about body type and the usual physical advantages men might have in terms of strength or height, since among the men, the best competitors are often rather smaller and more slight than average anyway.

Things become even more complex at a point where it is increasingly clear that gender is not a simple binary thing, as Caster Semenya was forced to demonstrate amid a lot of very public humiliation. What do these gender differences actually mean, in terms of success? We also have to consider (as this NY Times piece points out) that other successful athletes have genetic advantages which more or less make them very exceptional (think of seven-foot basket ball players!). So why is Caster Semenya’s ‘deviation’ from the ‘norm’ apparently so particularly offensive, especially since the advantages of natural testosterone in women are not even entirely clear?

For a while, the runner was even banned from her sport, as too ambiguous, but this did not mean that she would have been allowed to compete with the men: too much man for the women’s race, not man enough for the men’s? So, what is going to happen to athletes whose gender (or, more crucially here, sex, in terms of actual physical differences) is not clearly defined as one or the other, and those whose gender identity does not match (some of) their physical characteristics? Will such people be allowed to compete, and as what? And where might they go to the toilet? We don’t threaten to throw unwanted participants or spectators over cliffs any more these days, but frankly, the media coverage of Caster Semenya these last few years has not been much better.

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