Are mixed gendered sports the way of the future for sport, asks this month’s Fair Play podcast. 

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind, and in the spirit which requires mutual understanding, with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

That’s according to the Olympic Charter.

But sport is still one of the last places in society in which segregation, and in turn discrimination, occurs.

That notion of segregation has come into stark focus of late. There’s been ongoing coverage of whether girls should play in youth grade rugby and rugby league in New Zealand, and we’ve recently seen the New Zealand men’s netball team play the Silver Ferns, ahead of the Ferns’ World Cup victory.

But on the flipside, there’s also been a lot of discussion around new mixed gendered disciplines that have been added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics programme, meaning men and women will be able to compete together and against each other. Athletics, swimming, table tennis, sailing and triathlon will all have mixed-gender events.

But it’s not as simple as just opening all sports to all genders.

“That still requires men and women… it doesn’t necessarily recognise trans or non-binary athletes who still do get shut out of sport,” says sports sociology professor Holly Thorpe.

Sport was originally created by men for men’s interests and bodies, Thorpe says. “The structures of sport haven’t necessarily changed to reflect our rethinking about gender, where gender is not necessarily binary anymore, it’s much more fluid.”

Concerns have been raised about the differences between men’s and women’s physical ability and that women would get hurt playing against men.

Leading sports physician Deb Robinson says there are physical differences between the two genders, particularly pertaining to testosterone which creates larger and longer bones, and more muscle. Men traditionally have eight to 29 nanomoles of testosterone per litre, while women have 0.1 to 1.8 nanomoles.

But Robinson says we need to think wider than that. It’s about making sport fair.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya continues to battle her sport’s governing body which wants her to lower her testosterone to keep racing. Photo: Getty Images. 

But how do we do that when we have athletes like 800m Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya, who has a naturally high level of testosterone – although it’s well below that of a male athlete, or those who have transitioned male to female who have had the benefit of having testosterone growing up?

Robinson believes it’s still probably unfair to ‘cis females’ (those who are born female and, whose gender is female). “That’s the argument that’s come out recently by an Otago University study. And they say that this probably is going to err more on the side of an ethics argument rather than a physiological argument,” she says.

“We’ve got a lot of things to consider. It’s not just physiological.”

New Zealand men’s and mixed gendered netball coach Michelle Hansen-Vaeau has been involved with the sport for more than two decades. She transitioned in her late teens. She was bullied and “pushed out” of other sports but found solace in netball.

“There needs to be a real culture change and a shift on what the ‘norm’ is,” she says. “And trying to understand that sport needs to be played by all, and the more neutral sports you can have the better.”

Anyone with any ability can play sport, Hansen-Vaeau says. “That’s probably the downfall to a couple of sports is that the gender norms in those sports haven’t been shifted, and I’d love to see them shift,” she says.

The Black Ferns and New Zealand men’s netball team are starting to challenge traditional gender norms in sport, she says. But it’s not changing fast enough.

Thorpe suggests we keep men’s and women’s sports but have sport that is gender-free or “beyond gender”.

“I’d love to see another category … we could have trans, non-binary, cis men and woman, where it’s actually about just whoever is best,” she says.

“I’d love to see society, moving more towards gender fluidity and understanding that these… very binary ways of thinking that sports continues to reinforce. Sport to be a powerful way to help move along …  these more inclusive understandings.

“Gender is so complicated. It’s not just about physiology. Any sorts of responses need to recognise the many way people identify with gender and sporting structures are moving, but maybe not fast enough.”

Hansen-Vaeau says it’s not just about the grassroots of sport and athletes leading the charge. It’s about funding bodies and broadcasters recognising there is a need and an interest in mixed gender sport and trans athletes.

“Until they come on board and see the interest and the need for it, it will just stay at the level,” she says.

Also on Fair Play this month: Analysis of the Silver Ferns’ World Cup win; an update from para-climber Rachel Maia; we cross to the States to chat with WISPSports’ Chris Stafford about the USA women’s football team; the Basin Reserve is getting a new name plus an update on the toilets from the iconic cricket ground. Fair Play is a monthly podcast made in association with RNZ, LockerRoom and WiSPSports.

Zo—ë George is a Radio New Zealand producer, and presenter of the Fair Play podcast, a co-production of RNZ and WiSP Sports.

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