A review of Keeping Track's seminal sports-gender conversation
The mere existence of this podcast is an important early step in the march against pseudo-activists and the functionally insane
I laid the foundation for this podcast review almost three weeks ago, so I won’t offer deep background. What’s below is a cleaned up version of notes I took while listening to the podcast, hosted by Molly Huddle, Alysia Montaño and Roisin McGettigan and titled “Joanna Harper On Sporting Gender.” Sporting Gender is the title of Harper’s book, published by the same company responsible for the 2017 opus Young Runners at the Top (now available by special order in both Elmer Fudd and Cockney dialects).
The final sentence in the show’s standard introduction is “We care about the current and future landscape in women’s sports,” which, as it happens, I do too. It takes a lot to get me to listen to an entire running-related podcast, and also more self-cajoling than it may appear for me to write another post assured of drawing sad-face icons and demands to retract social shares from people who refuse to actually read it. This bloglike endeavor is rewarding in a few palpable senses, but I spent over 20 years writing about running in as positive a way as I could (opinions about my own races excepted) before this blog took a slight turn, and didn’t just wake up one day deciding to start dirt-bombing people who make a living—or, to be more realistic, grocery-to-almost-rent money—contributing their voices to a marginal but worthy sporting enterprise. Had I noticed a sudden and intentional diminution of journalistic ethics among running-writers, editors, and entire magazines five or ten or fifteen years ago, I’m sure that last angry hair strapped across my ass would have snapped then instead of last summer. (As it is, even as a far younger crotchety old man and Running Times senior writer, I used to rip content in Runner’s World regularly, a practice that continued after the latter purchased the former, has never stopped, and is gathering steam by the week. But those differences in perspective of yore were entirely sane and usually in fun.)
If you are in fact someone who reads whole posts, by the end of this one, you should understand why being nice to the proponents of unjust policies and kind to the athletes involved in their determination are two entirely different prospects, despite furious attempts to weld the two by those proponents. None of any animus found here is directed toward anyone but observers and commentators, some of them wielding enough influence to require that their lies, intentional distortions and misunderstandings be forcefully countervailed by, well, someone. My chief complaint isn’t that they are supporting wrong ideas; it’s that their shady ways of reporting on it reveal that they know, to at least some extent, that these ideas are bad. And of course, while slipshod work is one thing, dishonest reporting by itself is another and a good reason to sound some kind of alarm.
The pertinent chatter starts about ten minutes into the recording, after the hosts spend a few minutes marveling good-naturedly that breastfeeding an infant (I assume they’re talking only about infants) is somehow still taboo on American television despite the colossal flurry of genuine obscenities the medium cranks out. The hosts’ own notes on the podcast, which are really more like bookmarks or DVD section titles, are here.
9:50: The three hosts note the many requests they had received to tackle the topic of transgender and intersex (formally, a 46 X,Y disorder of sexual development, resulting in testes retained in the abdomen) women in sports, in particular in the 800 meters. At the moment, transgender athletes are a source of considerable tension at the high-school level and to a lesser extent in U.S. colleges, but at the world-class level of track and field, the focus is on intersex participants.
Montaño, 34 and now retired, ran between 1:57.34 and 1:57.75 in that event in four straight outdoor seasons (2010 through 2013) and finished fourth in the 2012 Olympics in London, where Caster Semenya claimed the first of her two Olympic gold medals. But even without this angle, it seems likely that more than a few Keeping Track listeners would have started clamoring or the hosts’ thoughts on the matter by now. The hosts use words terms “nuanced issue” to be as inviting as possible toward all listeners, or maybe because they believe that these fit.
Biologically, with the possible exception of post-surgical or post-hormonal-treatment trans women, it really isn’t. Certain testosterone levels are associated with the presence of unique structures, and if you need a bright line, there it is. Psychosocially and culturally, well, the hosts are right, because here we are, although “muddled” is probably a better way to describe things than “nuanced.” Montaño explains that, with the topic at hand gaining wider traction among the sporting rabble, she’s glad she no longer feels like she had to serve as a de facto authority on the matter simply because she was among Semenya’s pn-the-track rivals.
All three adamantly state their opposition to dehumanizing language in discussions about intersex and trans people, which, while a pretty easy call, is plainly heatfelt and sincere. Much of the podcast stays on this message. Montaño admits how nervous she is about saying the wrong thing. (I always liked how she let it all hang out as a runner, even if she ran a few tactically catastrophic races. She really comes across as a nice person in this role, too.)
20:15: Joanna Harper and Kate Grace are introduced. Harper, pre-medical transition, earned two physics degrees in the early 1980s (in Canada, where they’re worth more) during which period she also ran a 2:23 marathon. Physics was my own choice of undergraduate major even though I had no intention of later using it—I was by far the dumbest smart kid in my class—and I ran a 2:24 marathon some years later, and as I mention last time, I had a transgender professor for astrophysics with the same first name. This could be a coincidence, or it could be synchronicity and we might all be participating in a never-aired season of Lost.
Harper began her transition to a woman in 2004, in her mid-forties. Her performances had been slowing naturally with age, but after she had been on female hormones for a short time, her times slowed by around 12 percent. (For you non-runners, that’s a lot.) As a scientist, she was interested in gathering data, and through interviews and numbers-crunching along with digging into endocrinology literature, she sought to elucidate the specific factors that accounted for the difference in performances between elite men and women—also close to 12 percent, at least at the very top.
Harper, critically, points out that some 30 championship-level medals have been won by intersex athletes in the past 25 to 30 years, meaning that the conflict over how to separate men from women did not originate with Caster Semenya. Harper says that most opinions are either of the “trans women are women, period” or the “totally unfair” variety, with herself and a relatively small number of others somewhere toward the middle.
31:20: When asked directly how she feels about intersex and trans athletes in the women’s 800, Montaño punts expansively on the question. She says she really wants to take a listening role, but gives away perhaps more than she intends to by saying that a balance should be struck between the science and human-rights sides. This sounds like bonhomie, but it translates with little reduction to “We have rational thinking on one side and emotions on the other, and these should be balanced.” Should they?
Harper doesn’t think so, or at least she doesn’t think that trans females should have unrestricted access to women’s events. This is a courageous step by Harper, because the trans activists who have achieved the greatest visibility are absolutists who see Harper as a sell-out. And while Harper doesn’t say that Montaño and Grace (8th in the 2016 Olympic 800 meters, where the medals were swept by intersex athletes) got screwed by having to run at a stark disadvantage in the most important races of their lives, she indicates that she is clearly sympathetic to such positions.
36:00: Grace, still an active athlete with a 1:58.28 best from 2016, recapitulates Montaño’s thoughts on a science-human rights balance, and suggests that dealing with the sport’s still-extant doping problem should be a higher priority. This was a savvy thing to say, because Grace knows from experience that people already get tested and some get caught, and that “dealing with dopers” is a process with no endpoint in sight. On this view, addressing the presence of intersex women in the 800 meters, or anywhere, can always wait until the last PED cheat is detected. And while Grace doesn’t mean to lump in intersex athletes with dopers from a moral standpoint, similar to Montaño, she seems to acknowledge that without the human-rights concern, the choice to disqualify intersex athletes from women’s events would be clear-cut.
Grace says that when she’s asked why World Athletics only capped testosterone limits in certain women’s events despite men dominating women in all of them, she doesn’t have an answer. That’s because World Athletics, while eventually making the decision to disallow Semenya and other intersex competitors, seems to have bumbled its way toward that conclusion by focusing only on in-the-moment controversies. Had a Caster Semenya analogue arrived on the pole-vault scene ten years ago and started clearing 5.5 meters, it’s a practical certainty that the legislation would have applied to that event, too.
44:00: Harper says that about 1.5 percent of people worldwide are not considered sexually dimorphic, i.e., unambiguously male or female. Figures of 1.5 to 1.7 percent are commonly cited within the trans community, but this includes a number of conditions that clinicians don’t consider intersex, putting the true number at closer to 0.018%, or fewer than 1 in 5,000. Were the incidence really close to 1 in 60 or so, we* might already have separate sports leagues for intersex athletes, because women’s sports would have been far more broadly and deeply affected long before now.
Huddle asks Harper is fears of a “takeover” by intersex athletes are exaggerated or unfounded. I assume she prepared this question in advance, because earlier in the talk, Harper had answered that question in the affirmative. Of course, this depends on your idea of a “threat”—Harper says that at the world-class podium level, yes, but in an everyday sense, no. She says that a pure numbers “takeover” is impossible and that rosters of women’s and girls’ sports are not going to be occupied solely or mostly by men; while true enough on its face (even using the apparently inflated 1.5 percent figure) doesn’t account for the capacity of a superstar intersex athlete to swing the competitive dynamic of an team or even an entire league.
55:00: Harper reiterates the 30-intersex-championship-medals total for Grace’s benefit, and explains that the inconsistency of testosterone-level caps across events stems mostly from decisions made during the 2016 Dutee Chand case, and has no biological underpinnings. Chand is an intersex woman sprinter whom World Athletics had already cleared to continue competing in her events, so when it came time to assess Semenya, World Athletics realized it could not win a case in which it sought to place limits across all the events, as it had just declined to do so. This is why for now, only the 400, 800 and 1,500 meters have testosterone limits.
The women toss around the challenge presented by by doping some more as something of a red herring for a bit, then go on to discuss how racism and basic human ugliness has played a role in how Semenya, who owns two Olympic gold medals she doesn’t technically qualify for and always will, has been portrayed and treated.
Semenya being called all manner of shitty names for an entire decade—a special treat given that she has surely felt deep loneliness as it as at times throughout her life, which shiny medals can’t erase—is a subject worthy of this podcast. But as far as sports eligibility is concerned, whatever meanness someone has been subjected to in his or her life has no bearing on what sex category he or she belongs to. Once you start down that road, you eventually wind up at every terrible article ever written on the subject by ignorant or dishonest observers. This might be the worst of the bunch; it is just so grisly and off from start to finish that dragging out pull-quotes to fisk would be like running diarrhea through a colander.
But that grim effort appeared in The Nation. Writers for running outlets don’t have unfamiliarity with the material as even a flimsy excuse for failing just as spectacularly.
My annoyance over how most scribes have has handled this doesn’t lie solely or even mostly with the fact that they’re are arguing for people with functioning testes (that’s where the “extra” testosterone comes from—helpfully, it’s in the name) to take part in women’s and girls’ events. Yes, all of the “let her run!” arguments rest on pure emotion, and sound pretty dumb, and dismiss others in the race. But people say and do senseless and superstitious things, singly and in groups, all the time (ever been to a large casino?) and when these things don’t affect me, I usually either laugh at them or just turn away and find something that does, so I can stay restive.
But the systematically underhanded way in which these articles have been presented does tweak me. It would be one thing if you could find a story in, say, Women’s Running, or Outside, or The New York Times that followed a “Here’s their argument, here’s mine and this is why I believe Caster should run” format. Instead, for as long as they could shield their readers from conservative media, these writers either concealed the fact that Semenya has been known since 2009 to have testes or weren’t resourceful enough to unearth the fact. This skullduggery, in conjunction with misleading framings of Semenya’s status like “naturally elevated testosterone,” has made it all the easier for writers to declare everyone skeptical of Semenya’s eligibility as a woman athlete a regressive bigot who wants “the different” and women of color subjected to—among other indignities—invasive physical examinations. (News flash: When Olympic medals are at stake, they take your pee and blood and check you out closely. This applies to everyone.)
Such dismal, slanted journalism is exactly why everyone who thinks Semenya should remain eligible for women’s events despises Fox News. (Perhaps unbeknownst to these news consumers, CNN and MSNBC are arguably no better now integrity-wise.) Why do lefties think the practice any less ignoble coming from a different side of the room?
Hiding critical facts and tarring your opponents as ruthlessly regressive, even violent? Roger Ailes can take the credit for most of the idea, but every one of the rags I just listed and others have turned out misleading piece after misleading piece about trans and intersex athletes over the course of the past four or five years. I have linked to a number of these in past posts, and will defer starting another list here; I attribute this to a combination of fatigue and mercy. Besides, the topic is hardly dead.
Overall, this podcast was really a test run so that others might engage in the same with even more confidence, and the speakers had the luxury of all but avoiding the much more contentious issue of trans girls on high-school teams—a subject that’s guaranteed to recur here again and again. For an essay as bad on that topic as the one I linked to in The Nation, check this out. It’s a good example of someone advertising herself as “no bullshit” but confusing this label with a willingness to spout bullshit constantly and with no reservations. Alison Wade, whose newsletter sent me there, referred to this dumbfounded litany of irate squawking as “excellent,” though she didn’t say why; Wade is rarely willing to commit to her own opinion about such things, which I guess is how she gets subscribers. About the Keeping Track podcast, she wrote, “I appreciated their conversation with scientist and transgender athlete Joanna Harper, even in the few places where I didn’t agree with the views being expressed.” Well, I have feelings about this way of doing stuff, but I’ll let others indicate what those might me.
In summary, rather than find fault with areas in which I think the hosts could have been less wishy-washy, I commend all three of them for having the nerve to even do this podcast. And as I previously hadn’t heard any of them talk for any longer than the length of a pre-event presser or post-race interview, I was unware that they are, as a team and perhaps alone before mirrors, good at in this role. Having sharp and well-prepared guests helps anyone turn out a solid production, but the ladies of Keeping Track are not mailing it in. If I thought I could stay awake for another entire podcast, I would probably pick one from this crew. How many of these damn things are there?
Supplemental reading: “Why So Many Progressives Are Arguing That Biological Sex Doesn't Exist,” Jesse Singal, April 3, 2019.