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

Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz) was an Olympic athlete who won
medals in the 1930s and was later found to have both female and male
sex organs. Gender verification didn’t make its Olympic debut until 1968.
Image source.

Professor of history at The College of New Rochelle

As I wrote in my first book, a look at politics of racial identity in the 1968 Olympics, the rigidity of gender perceptions in sport became reinforced with the debut of “femininity control” – gender verification testing – at the British Commonwealth Games in 1966. The testing eradicated any notion that a male/female binary could be complicated despite past cases such as Stella Walsh (Stanislawa Walasiewicz), who won gold in 1932 and silver in 1936 in the 100-meters and was later found to have male sex organs, and German high jumper Dora Ratjen, a hermaphrodite who was banned from competition after a fourth place finish in 1936. Gender verification made its Olympic debut in 1968 in the Winter Games in Grenoble; the IOC then made it mandatory for every woman competing in Mexico City. The sports press had a field day with the absurdity of witnessing women submit to having their mouths swabbed to prove their womanhood, particularly when it came to the athletes that the writers found to personify femininity. The AP wrote of U.S. swimmers Linda Gustavson and Pam Kruse, for example, that “no person in his right mind could have any question of their sex.”

In the LA Times, legendary columnist Jim Murray exploded over the gender verification storm. Charging that the International Olympic Committee “wouldn’t be convinced by a topless waitress,” he wrote his own take on “separating the men from the girls”:

If it lisps, cries at weddings, stop speaking to you unaccountably for days at a time, can’t get along with your mother, puts its hair up in curlers and stands in front of two closetsful of clothes and sobs “I haven’t got a thing to wear!” it’s a girl. Color it pink. If it sits around in front of the TV all weekend watching football, trailing cigar ashes on the rug, pudgy fingers wrapped around a can of beer, scratching its hairy chest and ogling pretty girls at the family reunion, and eats with its fingers and makes noise eating soup, and gets into political arguments with your best friend’s husband, it’s a boy. Color it ugh! (October 16, 1968)

Playing on the various stereotypes that conflate gender and sex, Murray saw how the IOC had refused to understand gender’s social formation. His waggish solution was to test only the women “who speak baritone, have a mustache, or drive trucks for a living in the non-Olympic years,” as well as men “in rouge and high heels.” With the gender verification test, he warned, the IOC could make “girl athletes…one of the last persecuted minorities.”

Murray understood that gender, a social construction based on the perceived effects of biological differences, was not a physical designation, as “a great many more people,” he wrote, “are emotionally confused about their sex than they are organically.” Yet the IOC continued to conflate gender with sex, which refers to a person’s anatomy and hormones alone.

Flash forward to the hot topics of London 2012: While the Atlanta Games were seen by many as a turning point for American women who had come of age in the era of Title IX, London is proving to be the Games in which the nitty gritty questions of women’s athletic participation will be coming to a head. The most obvious question hanging over London is whether or not Saudi Arabia will field any women on its team. Both Brunei and Qatar, neither of which had ever sent a female participant to an Olympics, have promised that they would this time, but IOC President Jacques Rogge has described the circumstances with Saudi Arabia as “not an easy situation” and the Saudi National Olympic Committee president, Prince Nawaf, has stated that he does “not approve” of sending women. Whether or not there will be sanctions by the IOC, as there was for South Africa when it failed to send an integrated team in the 1960s, is still undetermined, but the questions that seem to always surround the presence of Muslim women athletes, particularly in terms of what they will wear, remain as pertinent as ever.

China and Austria compete in beach
volleyball at the 2008 Olympics.
At the 2012 Olympics, beach
volleyball competitors will have the
option of wearing shorts and sleeved
tops for the first time.

Indeed, fashion has been at the forefront of the questions surrounding women’s competitions in London. While the inclusion of women’s boxing events on the Olympic program means that for the first time women will compete in every Olympic sport, what the boxers are going to wear has plagued many. Female pugilists have been asked by the AIBA International Boxing Association to wear short skirts, saying that it will “help the women stand out from the men’s competitions.” Such a request, to be sure, has precedent, as the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, asked the women’s soccer teams in 2004 to wear “tighter shorts” in order to up the interest in the game. Conversely, the Badminton World Federation has ditched its proposal to make skirts mandatory for women, but still wants competitors to “dress properly” in an attempt to get more television coverage. Over at beach volleyball, women will be given the option for the first time to wear shorts and sleeved tops, as opposed to the formerly required bikini, with the International Volleyball Federation noting that because “countries have religious and cultural requirements … the uniform needed to be more flexible.”

How could finding a balance of what a female competitor should look like be so difficult? Peggy Orenstein argues that as women continue to push themselves into arenas formerly forbidden (including, she writes, “flooding the playing field”), the question of how to maintain – exaggerate, even – a feminine image does not go away but becomes more magnified. In her exploration of American girls’ increasingly amplified obsession with all things princess, she wonders about its effects: “Did playing Cinderella shield them from early sexualization or prime them for it?” Likewise, how to digest the fact that women in the boxing ring might need to put on a skirt to find feminine respectability, while women on the beach volleyball court might need to cover up to do the same?

For one competitor, what to wear will likely be determined by what adjustments she can make. Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will be eight months pregnant when she competes in London. While she qualified for both the 50m rifle three positions and the 10m air rifle, she has relinquished her spot in the former, as she can no longer shoot while on her stomach. While some Malaysian sports officials have urged her to drop out completely, claiming she cannot compete at an elite level while pregnant, she is determined to follow through, with hopes that the baby will not kick as she takes aim on her target.

I really hope it’s a girl.


Read Part 1 here.


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

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