From Semenya’s 30th win in a row, to powerful displays at Wembley, on bikes and in cars, women cast a blow against outdated attitudes
They may have failed to knock the Premier League title race completely out of the headlines, but whether they were pedalling into a 40mph block headwind on the Yorkshire coast, racing around the Hockenheimring, commanding primetime live coverage of their FA Cup final, or – in the shape of Caster Semenya and a woman who broke a marathon record dressed as a nurse – asking questions about gender distinctions, sportswomen had an extraordinary weekend.
No one who rides a bike any further than the local shops could have failed to appreciate the ordeal of the riders in the women’s Tour de Yorkshire as they fought to reach the finish in Scarborough, led by the great Marianne Vos. ITV4’s start-to-finish telecast showed that big crowds had braved filthy weather to watch them pass by hours in advance of the arrival of the men’s race.
It was a little ironic that the women, allowed only two stages to the men’s four, were denied the chance to ride up the cobbled streets of Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, whose early works were published under male pseudonyms. One day, full equality of opportunity and TV exposure might persuade even Dave Brailsford to add a female squad to Team Ineos, as he ought to have done 10 years ago with Sky’s millions.
In motor racing, the first of the W Series’ scheduled seven rounds fell to the 20-year-old British driver Jamie Chadwick, who emerged from a group of 18 hand-picked women to set the fastest times in both practice sessions, qualify on pole position, and led the race almost from start to finish. There are times when affirmative action is the only way to make progress, and this is one of them. But there is a fine line between a racing championship and a reality show, and it would be a shame if the W Series were to cross it. The drivers’ identical racing uniforms were uncomfortably reminiscent of Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus.
Someone else snarkily observed that it was a decent contest, if you like watching slow motor racing. But then you could, I suppose, view quite a lot of women’s sport through the same prejudicial lens, and at least the W Series is promoting women in a sport in which history shows them to be potentially capable of competing on equal terms with men.
As the women of Manchester City beat West Ham at Wembley, anyone who watches only men’s professional football might have found themselves noting that the players’ reactions were a little slower, the tackles less forceful, the finishing not as positive, the goalkeeping less authoritative. But men can be sluggish and indecisive, too. And the margins were not great enough to spoil an appreciation of City’s progressive football or the competitive spirit of West Ham, who showed, after only a year together, how fast progress can be made.
And then, of course, there was Caster Semenya, winning her 30th consecutive 800m race in Doha and raising questions not just about sport but about society’s changing attitudes towards itself. In past eras the achievements of Tamara and Irina Press, the Soviet Olympic champions, and Jarmila Kratochvilova, the Czech who won gold medals at the middle distances, prompted not much more than raised eyebrows and a shaking of heads. Now the case of Semenya is at the centre of a wider and more profound ethical debate.
All sport is by nature arbitrary. The duration of a football match, the distance of a marathon, the size of a golf ball, the height of a diving board: someone has to decide. Sex, bestowed by nature, is something different. Gender, the assumption of identity, is different again. In choosing testosterone levels as the most effective categoric measure, the IAAF is probably doing the best it can. But to expect Semenya to take drugs to suppress her natural hormones in order to be able to compete as a woman is cruel and should be illegal. A chromosome test is simpler, and not subject to manipulation (or at least not yet), but how do you tell someone who was raised as a girl and has no reason to think of herself as anything other than a woman that she must compete as a man?
To abolish the division between men and women throughout professional sport would be absurd, removing most women from most sports at a stroke. To create a third category, bridging the two, would seem impossible to define and control, even though it might reflect the way society is evolving. Those who believe the old adage that hard cases make bad law will see the Semenya ruling, even though it creates a victim, as the only sensible option – for now, at least.
Those seeking relief from such an intense and painful debate could turn for light relief to the plight of Jessica Anderson, the woman informed that she had not broken the record for running the London Marathon dressed as a female nurse because she was wearing modern scrubs, as worn by all nurses, rather than a traditional pinafore and cap. But that, in its way, is part of the same story.