Courage in sport comes in all forms

July 20, 2015
A pole vaulter goes over the top

On July 15, Caitlyn Jenner was recognized with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. This is an award given to an athlete who is willing to stand up for their beliefs regardless of the cost. Caitlyn has brought important attention to the issues surrounding trans individuals and her story will no doubt contribute to breaking down existing social barriers faced by individuals whose gender identity does not align with their biological anatomy.

Our understanding of gender identity has progressed significantly since Caitlyn first entered sport “as a young boy (Bruce)” back in the 1960's. Studies have shown that by the age of three, children are conscious of the differences between males and females and are able to label themselves as either a boy or girl. Caitlyn has also stated that she knew she wanted to be a female since childhood. This means that she identified with being female from the time she entered sport.

What might have happened back then had Caitlyn tried to assert her identity as a female? Quite possibly, she might never have been able to pursue sport. Social norms and the rules of sport at the time might have kept or driven her out of sport and robbed her of the chance to excel in sport and to benefit from the many positive experiences sport has to offer.

Today, we understand more (but by no means all) about gender identity. We understand that for the vast majority, our gender identity aligns with our biological anatomy....but for some, it does not. We understand that gender exists more on a continuum than as two discrete categories of male and female.

Our increased understanding of gender identity poses complex challenges for sport. Most particularly, it forces sport to confront the following questions: how does sport recognize the right to participate in sport – in the gender one identifies with – while at the same time maintaining a level playing field in relation to the impact of the dominant hormones that differentiate the majority of males and females (testosterone and estrogen)? When two values, such as inclusion and fair play come into conflict, should one take precedence over the other? If so, how do we decide which value should be given priority? The answer may lie in determining which value, if imposed over the other, causes the least harm.

These questions give rise to bigger questions, such as: should sport be divided by biological anatomy? Should sport be divided by gender identity? And, how can sport navigate the disconnect between the way sport is divided today and the lived reality of trans athletes?

Caitlyn's recent actions, as recognized by the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, serve to highlight the need for us to take a deeper look into these difficult questions.