When Women Athletes’ Gender is Up for Debate, Nobody Wins

I played tennis in high school. I played doubles, so I had get pretty good at intercepting balls at net. I remember one time I actually had to dive, fully extended, to cut off a passing shot. My racket made contact with the ball, but my body also made contact with a hard court. My leg was more scraped up than it had ever been. It stung, but the volley I hit was good, so I considered it a fair trade.

What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t really worry about looking feminine while I was on the court. (That was also one of the many reasons I wore shorts instead of a tennis skirt. Seriously? Who was I trying to impress?) I’ve never been accused of being too masculine, but more to the point, I never felt like I should have been more feminine. I just was how I was and played how I played, and that’s how I thought it was for everybody.

You’d think that the same attitude might dominate when you get to truly world-class athletes, but you’d be wrong. Because even when you’re the best in your field, how you look is fair game if you’re a woman.

I remember when Venus and Serena Williams first came on the tennis scene. They were phenomenal right from the start, with their beaded hair and blistering serves. Since their debut, they’ve won 25 Grand Slam singles titles and four Olympic gold medals. They are amazing. I can’t gush about them enough.

That record, though, is not enough to keep snarky comments about their physique at bay. And from high ranking people in tennis, no less!

[Head of the Russian Tennis Federation] Shamil Tarpischev referred to the tennis stars as “the Williams brothers” during a recent appearance on the late-night Russian talk show Evening Urgant. He made the comment while discussing the difficulty of beating the Williams sisters. Serena has 18 grand slam titles and Venus seven, the report says.

Ugh, of course. The worst thing an athlete who happens to be a woman can be is kind of masculine. Serena Williams, of course, remained classy as hell, saying, “I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time,” and  “I thought they were, in a way, bullying. I just wasn’t very happy with his comments. I think a lot of people weren’t happy as well.”

She’s right, of course. This is bullying. And body shaming. It’s like athletes who are women have to constantly prove their woman-ness, lest they be cast aside. In this regard, the comments made about Serena and Venus are actually fairly mild. Nobody really thinks the Williams sisters are actually men. But don’t think for a second that women aren’t forced to prove how female they are in the wide world of sports, because they do.

The most recent example of this is Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who has been banned from competition because she has too much androgen in her body. Androgen, I might add, that is there normally. It gives her an unfair advantage, they say, as if world class athletes don’t have one genetic advantage or another over us plebes.

Women who excel at a sport can’t just be athletes. They must be women athletes. It’s why, at the London Olympics, female boxers were nearly forced to wear skirts. It’s why running skirts are a thing. (For real!) It’s why even when you are at the top of your game, schmucks can insinuate that you’re too good an athlete to truly be a woman.

Serena did eventually get an apology from Tarpischev, who was also fined $25,000 by the Women’s Tennis Association. That’s good, but the damage is already done.

Image credit: Ian Gampon via Flickr


Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago


pam w.
pam w4 years ago

Am I the only one old enough to remember when the Soviets sent ''women'' to track and gymnastics events for the Olympics? They were built like GORILLAS and finally, genetic testing was begun. Guess what? The Soviets stopped sending these ''girls'' and competitions went back to more normal results.

There really IS a reason for some of this.

ERIKA S4 years ago


Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago

Thanks for the post.

Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago


Muff-Anne York-Haley

Women shouldn't always have to prove themselves!

Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago

This should never have happened. I'm glad she got her apology. Now she should kick him in the &(%(%lls.

Joan E.
Joan E4 years ago

The hormones in your mother's womb, I've heard,which can vary if she's under stress, influence your own body hormones, and you can't help it if you end up with more or less estrogen or testosterone. Those hormones control which genitalia we get, which secondary sexual characteristics, but it's not always clear-cut M or F. There is a continuum, and some people naturally have more or less of a certain hormone than usual for others of their gender. I don't blame people with athletic talent for not wanting to be disqualified from competition if they are atypical on the hormone charts.