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Level Playing Fields and Beer Leagues: Sports are Unfair | Wired Cola

Level Playing Fields and Beer Leagues: Sports are Unfair

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I've been ranting online meditating about level and non-level playing fields in sports lately.

Item: Oscar Pistorius, the fastest man on no legs, is in the news again because he is on the verge of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in the 400-metre event. I see this as being parallel to the previous stories of Caster Semenya and Michelle Dumaresq: in the latter two cases, the question was "who gets to compete in women's events?" (and implicitly, it was "what is the purpose of a separate women's category?") In the former case, it's "who gets to compete in men's events?"

Level Playing Fields

I have a glib, pointed answer to the question of why women-only categories and events exist: men are faster and stronger. This is not a case of a universal truism (the number of women cyclists out there who could destroy me in any cycling event is considerable), but more a matter of overlapping bell curves. At the very highest levels of almost all competitions where athletic performance matters, the very best male athletes are considerably better than the very best female athletes.

By the standards which elite performances are measured, these gaps are usually enormous: In 1998, one of the Williams sisters (they were already elite players, but still teenagers and not in their peak years) made a bold claim that they could beat any man outside of the top 200 tennis players in the world. 203-ranked Karsten Braasch took them up on that challenge in a low-key exhibition: he played a set against each sister, destroyed them serially, and credibly claimed he was not playing very hard.

This doesn't make women's tennis (or any other women's sport) bad, or pointless, or not entertaining. All sports are pointless; many are entertaining. The point is that women's sports appeal to our collective sense that it is "fair" (and maybe more importantly, interesting) that women should compete amongst themselves, establishing a "best among women" in each sport. A very similar inspiration leads to many sports having age-grouped categories.

Caster Semenya and Michelle Dumaresq are edge cases in the realm of women's sports. In normal cases, the delineation between male and female is dead simple: visible sexual characteristics, genetic tests, and hormone-level tests all line up, and almost always give an indisputable answer to the question "male or female?" Even psychological testing and writing samples allow better-than-chance assessments of gender (though not as decisive or accurate as the physiological markers). But in rare cases, that alignment is not so decisive.

Semenya, although the reports on her gender determination have not been made public, is probably an edge case because she has apparently female genitalia, but one or more of her genetic or hormonal markers of sex read as male. The problem is that the essence of the male athletic advantage is tied up in the presence of male hormones: they are generated by genetic males, and they tend to cause men to build more muscle and carry less fat (and a few other physical traits) that give them an athletic edge over women. And indeed, I think most observers would say that Semenya looks "mannish," as the norms of the female body are judged. So the question is: does this give her the kind of advantage over more normatively-female athletes, the exact kind of advantage that women-only events try to remove?

Dumaresq is an even more complicated example, in that she was born, undisputably, as a physical, hormonal, and genetic male, but had surgery and drug treatments to become (as much as medically possible) a woman. It is absolutely true that the surgery and hormone treatments she received diminished her athletic prowess, but the question is whether she still gains any advantage from having been born a man (and one who, as a woman, is a substantial outlier in terms of height and build).

I have a simplistic answer to much of this debate: in most sports, there is a women's category, and an open category (rather than a men's category). This can be seen in that most sports, especially pro sports, freely admit women to their most elite competitions: a woman played an NHL exhibition game in goal, and the only real controversy was whether she was an NHL-calibre goalie. Similarly, Annika Sorenstam competed in a PGA event, and while Vijay Singh made derogatory comments about her entry, the biggest point of contention seemed to be whether she was able to play at the PGA level (the result was bemusing: she was far from the worst player in the tournament, but she didn't make the cut, and it was her putting game that was her downfall). So to my mind, the question with athletes like Semenya and Dumaresq is not whether they should be allowed to compete or not, but whether they should be permitted in the women's category, or moved to the open category (and both of these athletes, were they competing against men, would immediately move down the competition scale from national/world-class to regional amateur categories. This would be bad for both of them, in terms of their sporting goals, but I'd like to assure them, as one untalented athlete to another, that there are worse fates).

Inhuman Ability

So along comes Oscar Pistorius, essentially taking my tidy "open class" theory and kicking it hard using inhuman legs.

I stipulate one thing: Pistorius is already running on emasculated prostheses. Even accepting the simple rule that no sporting prosthetic should store energy before the race start (that is, no pre-wound clockwork springs to fire the runner down the track), Pistorius would almost certainly run faster using longer, springier, or otherwise more optimized prostheses. What he is using now is at the limits of of what is allowed in paralympic competition, but at least there his competitors are all racing using the same technology.

Against able-bodied athletes, it's an entirely different question. There is no direct comparison between how Oscar runs and how athletes with muscled calves run. We know that he starts slow and runs fast, compared to able-bodied athletes at these distances. Indeed, the arguments over the legality of Pistorius competing in elite able-bodied competitions skirt around the fact that the advantages and disadvantages of how Pistorius runs are not precisely known, and not precisely knowable, and the honest margin of doubt appears to be greater than the range of performance from record-setter to non-qualifier. As much as we want Oscar to compete on a "level playing field" with able-bodied athletes, the definition of "level" is both debatable and quite fuzzy, and even the current Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rulings are explicitly contingent on the possibility that better physiological evidence may change their minds in the future. It's a messy story.

We All Want to Be Above Average

And so the third part of my meditation on level playing fields, that of ability-based competition.

Lots of non-elite competitions use ability-based categories, meaning a competitor is sorted into a pool of similar performers, without regard to one or more intrinsic characteristics, like weight, age or gender. The simplest example is a ladder tournament, used everywhere from squash clubs to chess clubs. It works well for one-on-one events that don't work solo. Many other competitions do not use ability-based categories: marathons (at least outside of the very small groups of seeded elite runners) start as much as possible as a single mass group, and each racer tends to care about their individual time from start to finish, and usually compares that time primarily to their own personal best at that distance, rather than to the performance of others who run at a similar speed.

Amateur cycling doesn't work that way. Like a squash match, a typical bike race is substantially defined by the competition, and "personal best time" (except for time trials) is not really meaningful as a measure of personal performance. Also, road cycling is an event where so much depends on both tactical dynamics and on being roughly competitive with those around you, that when you race against people who are either much too strong or much too weak, the event ceases to have the character of a road race (too weak, and you shoot out the back, and are on a solo ride; too strong, and you disappear off the front, and are on a solo ride). For this reason, much amateur racing is based around ability categories, frequently with a modicum of self-seeding.

The dilemma is this: given a collection of ability-based categories, which category should a rider be in? The argument, for entirely different reasons, parallels the problems discussed above: you want "fair" competition, but this time because the event will be (from a utilitarian perspective) most interesting for everyone when the competitors are as evenly matched as possible.

For any individual rider, the most desireable category is probably that in which they are closest to the second-place rider in the pack. In such a case, the rider will be a powerful force in the race, always able to challenge for victory, but not so powerful that every race turns into a time trial off the front (which ultimately, is only fun for time triallists, or when it is a tactical result of a pack not chasing at its full potential, and paying the price).

Unfortunately, not every rider can be above average, so the goal is to ensure that every rider is sorted into whichever group leaves them closest to the average performance of that group.

This is a hard concept to cope with, especially since most ability-based bike racing includes an upgrade system that pushes you from group to group as you accumulate good results. In other words, the natural progression for a rider who does not make it into the upper echelons of the elite category is to go from winning a lower category to...not winning much at all, in the middle of a higher category.

In a word, that sucks for a lot of riders. They're unhappy about suddenly going from what feels like near-ideal racing conditions to a group that is too hard for them to easily influence. But as a mathematical reality, that is the normal experience of most bike racers at most performance levels: bike racing is hard, it hurts a lot, and you won't win very often. Like life, it will feel horribly horribly unfair.

Sports Are Like Life: Unfair

The lesson in all these examples is the same: our sense of what is fair and just for any individual will frequently derange the nature of competition for all. Drawing the bar to competing for athletes like Dumaresq, Semenya, or Pistorius in slightly the wrong place could lead to athletes with their peculiarities coming to dominate competitions not really designed with them in mind: get the argument about allowable prosthetic parameters for the nominally "open" class in athletics, and the future of the 400m run may be nothing but bilateral amputees. Err in terms of determining how "fair" it is to have MTF transsexuals or from-birth hermaphrodites competing against women who are indisputably within the physiological, genetic, and hormonal norms for females, and it is entirely possible that a small inherent disadvantage would allow the best "normal" females to be crowded out of women's competition. Indeed, this arguably already happens: any elite athlete in any competitive sport is essentially a physiological outlier of some sort. Arguably, female athletes with some intersex indications already succeed in women's sports out of proportion to their numbers (that page says no more than 1 in 1500 births are reported as apparently intersex, but that is presumably a low estimate, given that some nominally intersex people would appear normal at birth, with intersex characteristics not obvious until puberty, if ever).

So what is to be done? Rather than touch the more fraught issue of gender distinctions, I'd simply say that a cruel, pointed response to the Pistorius affair would be very simple: mandate prostheses that, against able-bodied runners, indisputably do not give Pistorius a physiological advantage. On the other hand, bilateral amputee running should encourage prostheses, that within some simple limitations (no stored energy, other regulations primarily focused on safety), are given great latitude to go all-out for performance. My attitude is that while paralympic running should still be indisputably human-powered bipedal motion, there is no reason the paralympic record times shouldn't be lower than the "able-bodied" records.

As Aimee Mullins points out in this video, "that's not fair" can cut both ways. (The best part of her story is 7:20-7:59). Expectations of fairness are always going to be confounded by the intractable unfairness of so many things, and sports, of all endeavours, is about attempting to impose fairness on inherently unfair contests.