London 2012: A Woman’s Place is on the Field (Part 1 of 2)

Kathrine Switzer (pictured) made
her first historic run in 1967’s Boston
Marathon, five years before women
were officially allowed to race. This
year promises to be another revolutionary
one for gender identity and sports as
Keelin Godsey works toward becoming
the first transgender Olympic athlete.

Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

There are many reasons that I am a proud alum of Bates College – established by abolitionists, founded co-ed, sustainable campus, no Greek organizations – but reading about Keelin Godsey in the alumni magazine for the past several years has certainly been a highlight. In 2006, Bates reported on his second place finish in the shot put and his victory in the hammer throw at the NCAA Division III Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The meet marked his 15th and 16th All-America awards, making him the most decorated athlete in the college’s history.

Yes, I just used “his” and “him” to refer to an athlete competing in the women’s division: Godsey is a transgender athlete, and Bates reported it as straightforwardly as anyone could hope for.

Godsey is gearing up to qualify for the London Olympics, and is but one of many stories that has shifted some of the focus off Michael Phelps, William and Kate, and the Queen herself. From the questions that surround Godsey’s possible participation, to what many of the female competitors will wear, to whether or not Saudi Arabia will field a team that includes women, London 2012 is shaping up to be an Olympics of particular historic significance in terms of gender and identity.

Godsey came out just before his senior year at Bates, becoming one of the first known transgender athletes to compete at the college level. Since he did not transition medically and continued to compete as a female, Bates worked with the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to figure out how to address a gender identity that contradicts the biological male/female categories that govern most athletic competitions. Godsey speaks often about the support Bates gave him and credits art professor Erica Rand for helping him to figure out how to self-identify in the first place, and praises his teammates and his coach, who, he says, “never messed up my pronouns.”

After placing seventh in the trials for Beijing in 2008, Godsey again has his sights set on the Olympics. Having officially met the qualifying distance, he hopes that a top-three finish at the Olympic trials on June 21st will send him to London. Although a longshot (six women have thrown farther this year than his personal best of 69.39), he is certainly in the mix. And folks have noticed. A thoughtful eight-page feature in the May 28th issue of Sports Illustrated by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein explores the predicament of the transgender athlete in the biologically segregated world of sports. While the piece includes examples such as tennis player Renee Richards and George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums, the first openly transgender college athlete to compete in Division I, it largely focuses on Godsey, including a two-page photo of him swinging the hammer.

But, again, Godsey’s story is not the only thing to consider regarding the complexities of gender in the upcoming London Olympics, as the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA have had very different approaches in understanding identity’s role on the field. The Sports Illustrated piece points out that the NCAA has been progressive regarding the issue of gender identity in athletic competition, issuing a study in 2011 (in cooperation with the National Center for Lesbian Rights) that allowed “a transgender student athlete to participate in sex-separated sports activities so long as the athlete’s use of hormone therapy is consistent with the NCAA policies and current medical standards.” As the SI article beautifully summarizes, the NCAA found that “genitalia … do not impact athletic performance.”

But the IOC has a far murkier history on the matter, and has tended to construe the category of “woman” in absolute terms. Absent from the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, women debuted in competition in Paris in 1900 in tennis, equestrian, and golf, and added track and field events in Amsterdam in 1928, where American Elizabeth Robinson took gold in the 100-meters. Early on, issues regarding these athletes’ femininity ran the gamut: accusations of “mannishness” plagued particularly muscular American women, while physicians worried that women needed to focus their physical attention on reproduction, not gold medals. In the postwar period, views slowly began to change. In 1964, the American Medical Association officially encouraged women to get involved in sports, and sportswriters began to forgive the image of the “mannish” Soviet woman, who continually crushed her American counterpart, as part of the evolving Cold War rhetoric, wondering instead why American women could not step up to the plate and win in the name of democracy.

Yet despite these shifts, female athletes were generally understood within a framework of biological determinism, especially in terms of their physical incapacities when compared with men. This applied more directly to some sports than others. Distance running, for example, was rarely – if ever – recognized as an acceptable pursuit for women, considered to be too draining on the frailer female constitution. When Kathrine Switzer made her historic run at the Boston Marathon in 1967, five years before women were officially allowed to race, she had to dodge the pre-race medical exam and fend off the race officials who tried to physically remove her from the race. The women’s marathon would not make its Olympic debut until the Los Angeles Games in 1984, won by American Joan Benoit.

The complexities that surround female athletes, then, are many. On the one hand, those who are strong and powerful and can throw things great distances, for example, are considered too “mannish” to be women. Yet events like the marathon, which demands outstanding stamina, are considered to be too arduous for “the weaker sex.”

Whoever that is.


Read Part 2.


Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle. This will be her eighth Olympics working as supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room. She is author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (2002) and Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois (2009).

On Not the Triumph:
“In addition to being competition, entertainment, business, and shared experience, Sport has often been a stage where significant social issues were played out. In the twentieth century, those issues often pertained to human rights and race. Sometimes the dynamics of sports served to clarify those issues, sometimes to muddle them. Here, Amy Bass sorts through the events and perceptions linked to some of the biggest names and moments in sports history, and assesses their meaning beyond the playing field.”
—Bob Costas, NBC Sports

On Those About Him:
“Amy Bass’s excellent history of ‘un-American activities’ in a pleasant New England town is another cautionary illustration of the banality of evil: in this case, the long, willful distortion of the progressive legacy of their greatest native son, W. E. B. Du Bois, by the people of Great Barrington in the service of a perverted patriotism.”
—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963

Leave a Reply