Gender Identification & Races

At a recent race, a runner entered with a sex of “other” which caused a bit of a problem with the race results. After all, in such competitions people are divided between male and female. They are also divided by age. Because of this, experienced runners tend to check out the competition before the start of the race, looking to see who is present and mentally gauging their chances of being “a have” (runner slang for getting an award).

Since awards tend to be divided into categories of sex and age, runners also try to estimate the age of those they do not recognize. While it is far less common, runners sometimes do need to estimate the sex of the competition. While some people advocate avoiding all concerns about age and sex by only having awards for overall top finishers, there are good reasons to have such categories.

One obvious reason is that awards are intended to increase attendance at the race—people are more inclined to participate when they know they have more chances of winning. If awards were limited to top overall finishers, there would be some decline in participation since people who were not the very top runners would know they had no chance of winning anything.

Another reason is to provide people with a chance to compete in ways that offset advantages. Naturally, almost every race allows people to compete in the overall results, so there is still a very broad competition.

Age has a dramatic negative impact on performance. One major factor is that older athletes do not recover as fast, hence it becomes harder to maintain rigorous training while avoiding injury and being well-rested for the competition. People also get weaker as they age, though diligent maintenance can slow this setting of the sun. Because of this, most races have 5 or 10-year age groups for awards to provide runners with a chance to compete against people with comparable temporal challenges. There are, of course, many older runners can still beat many younger runners, but the general advantage lies with the youth. For most races, runners are on the honor system—they provide their age when they sign up. Some races do, however, require proof of age to avoid people cheating by lying.

While there are female runners who can easily defeat almost any male on the planet in a race, males have various biological advantages when it comes to running, such as greater strength. As such, dividing the awards by sex is a way to account for this difference. There are, of course, some races that do not take this approach, but these are very rare and tend to be small races put on by people not familiar with the usual practices of awards.

As with age, runners are on the honor system in regards to providing their biological sex when they sign up. While a male would generally have an advantage if he could pass a female, this could be challenging given the nature of running attire and various other factors. There are, however, some controversial cases. Perhaps the most famous is that of runner Caster Semenya. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition which causes the production of high levels of testosterone. High testosterone levels are believed to provide an athletic advantage. It must be noted that while testosterone is associated most with males, females also produce testosterone. In the past, some sporting authorities tested female athletes for high testosterone levels, but this practice has largely changed because female athletes, like male athletes, naturally vary a great deal in their testosterone levels.

While sex-changes are not common, they do occur often enough that the matter has been addressed in sports. Because the division of the sexes in sports is justified on the grounds of relative advantages, females who transition to male can generally compete without restrictions. The easy and obvious justification for this is that such a male would not have any advantage over other males. In fact, they would probably tend to have some disadvantage relative to people who were born male. A male who transitions to female would potentially have an advantage. Because of this, a transitioned athlete need not have surgery, but she is typically required to have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. This prevents male athletes from simply claiming to be female and competing with an advantage.

There are also people who want to change their gender identification but do not want to undergo surgery or hormone therapy. Some might wonder what would prevent unscrupulous male athletes from gender identifying as females to win races. The easy and obvious answer is that sex divisions in sports are not gender divisions. They are a matter of physical factors and not a matter of social construction. As such, a male athlete who gender identified as a female would still compete against males. They are still a male in regards to the factors that matter in competition.

It could be objected that a person who gender identifies as a man or a woman should be able to compete in accord with their preferred identity. That person might, for example, want their race medal or trophy to reflect this identity—being second female in the 20-24 age group, for example. An easy counter to this is to use an analogy to age—a person might identify as “young at heart” or “and old soul”, but this does not impact their actual chronological age. In the case of athletic competition, this is what matters. If people could pick their age identity for races, this would presumably be used to gain an unfair advantage. So, a 26-year-old person who identified as a 40-year-old would not thus be eligible to win the master’s award (for people 40+).

The next to the last matter to be considered is that which started this discussion; a person who wants to identify as “other.” Resolving this would require determining the basis of the claim of otherness. If the person has a biological identity that falls within established rules for competition (being intersex, for example) then those rules would be applied. If the person has a biological identity that falls outside of the existing rules, then there would seem to be two likely approaches. One would be to match the person with the closest biological sex. The other would be to create a new category for sports and establish standards for being in that category. If the person is electing to select other as a gender identity while having a biological sex, then the person would compete in the category of that biological sex, for the reasons given above.

In closing, there is also a practical matter regarding possible legal troubles. Years ago, I would often see race entry forms with “gender” instead of “sex” because the terms were used interchangeably. These days, “sex” is the standard. If an entry form has “gender” rather than “sex”, then a person could presumably use whatever gender they wish to identify with. This would be rather problematic for the awards budget, since Facebook recognizes over fifty genders. As such, race entry forms should go with “sex.” The form might need to include a brief explanation of the difference between sex and gender to help avoid misunderstandings.


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  1. It may seem to most people that there are only two possible genders, male or female. Even if ignore individuals who are at some point along the path of transitioning from one gender to another however, this does not exhaust the possibilities. There are a small number of individuals who are partial or complete hermaphrodites with at least some of the reproductive organs and hormones of both gender as well as some people who have had ovaries or testes removed because of cancer and cannot risk hormone replacement and therefore could no longer be considered male or female for the purpose of hormonal advantage or disadvantage in sports.
    My point is that we should be willing to accept that not everybody will fit into nice neat categories. We should be willing to accept “other” or “none of the above” as a valid answers.

  2. There is the practical problem of buying the race awards; having three sets of awards on the off chance that a rare biological other would show up would be pricey. But, there could presumably be ways to accommodate this possibility while also keeping clever knaves from getting the race loot by lying about being other.

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