Feb 28

Sports, Politics and Sex

An article by Ian Kilbride

Sport and politics enjoy an ambiguous relationship. On the one hand, sport can transcend politics at all levels. On the other, sport at the highest level can be intensely political.

Neither Francois Pienaar, nor Siya Kolisi can claim to be the best flank forwards South Africa has ever produced. Arguably neither was even the best available for selection to their respective Springbok teams. Yet both unified South Africa by virtue of their leadership on the sporting field and achieving what we as a country aspire to be, a united and successful nation. While Pienaar’s leadership of the Springboks to victory in the 1995 rugby world cup defined our aspirations as a young rainbow nation (and immortalised by Madiba’s wearing of the No.6 Springbok rugby jersey), Siya’s leadership of the Bokke in 2019 was an equally important marker of progress. Led by a black captain from humble background, victory was achieved through tries scored by two players of colour and achieved in a land many thousands of miles away. 

But while sportspeople can unite the nation, sport, sporting events and sports stars can also be useful political capital and are often abused as such. The classic case of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics springs to mind, while North Korean leader Kim Yong Un clearly enjoyed duping US basketball star, Dennis Rodman, into performing a very public, yet ultimately humiliating, good will ambassadorial role for the brutal dictator. South African leadership is not immune to such opportunities and in this regard, one is reminded of former President Thabo Mbeki being lifted atop the shoulders of John Smit’s 2007 world conquering Springboks. Three years later also saw the last public appearance on the global stage of Nelson Mandela prior to the final of the 2010 FIFA world cup.

But a relatively new and more challenging dynamic has entered the politics of sport – sex. While we became accustomed to the testosterone infused monstrosities masquerading as amateur athletes during the Cold War Olympics, today, the challenge confronting organised sport, its competitions and rules is that of (trans) gender identity. While the trend in the western, liberal and democratic world is towards the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights, such as same sex marriages, ironically perhaps, given sports levelling and equalising qualities, sex and gender identity is proving to be an area of acute division and disagreement. Simply put, with respect to transgender issues there is a direct tension between the universal principles of human rights and non-discrimination on the one hand and the fairness of sporting competition on the other.

This is not to confuse the case of our own Caster Semenya and the natural biological and physiological characteristics of intersex individuals. As an interesting aside, Caster was awarded gold for the 2011 athletics world championships and the 2012 Olympic Games only after the doping disqualification of Russian athlete Mariya Savinova. Caster’s case and her treatment by World Athletics demonstrated that the global body governing world athletics was ill-equipped to deal with cases of intersex individuals and far less so with respect to transgender athletes.

All of this comes at a time when female sport itself is coming of age. As I write this, the South African women’s cricket team is taking on Australia in the international T-20 final and it is going to be a crowd sell-out. In football, the England women’s team EUFA Championship victory over Germany was watched by 87, 000 fans. Better still, globally, 83% of sports reward men and women equally. Emerging from decades of patriarchy, female sport today is powerful, competitive and compelling. This being so, is there still a case for separating male and female sporting codes? If we have enjoyed mixed doubles at Wimbledon for many years, is it not time to do away with the gendered stereotypical artificiality of men’s and women’s tennis, rugby, football and boxing?

In thinking through these challenging issues, I was reminded that my Father played professional rugby and had the honour of facing the All Blacks. He recalls what a battered and bruising contest that was, but also cherishes it as the highlight of his sporting career. Are we now really proposing that women and men should be playing in the same rugby teams with all its attendant physical risks, particularly at the level of the modern super athletes plying their trade as professional rugby players? To reduce it to its most basic conundrum, are we to allow or condone a burley 2metre tall 250-pound transgender person playing lock with or against an all-female rugby team?

The issues are not as clear cut as they may seem, however. The American Medical Association has deemed that legislation barring trans women from women’s sports harms the mental health of transgender people. I am sure there is credence and merit to this argument, but where do the mental health rights of trans people, intersect or clash with the physical health and safety rights of the straight people competing against them? 

Clearly there are sporting codes in which sex, gender and attendant issues such as power, speed, strength, height, reach and stamina are inconsequential. Here, Summer Olympic codes such as archery, shooting, diving and equestrian events spring to mind.  When considering the Winter Olympics, curling, skating and luge are not codes necessarily determined by gender or sex. Surely in these codes a case can be made for non-binary categories, events and awards.  But where physical and physiological attributes derived principally from the sex-related chromatic differences between men and women are key to performance, to deny this fact of nature by the introduction of gender-neutral competitive sport is surely a dangerous mistake.

Ian Kilbride is the Chairman and CEO of The Spirit Group and an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch Business School