Lana Lawless, a stocky blonde in her fifties, stepped up to the tee at the 2008 World Long Drive Championship and smashed the ball into a 40 mile per hour headwind. It landed 254 yards away, the length of two-and-a-half football pitches. With that swing, Lawless became women’s world champion.
At the turn of the millennium, Lana didn’t even exist. Or rather she existed only in the mind of a 17-stone police officer assigned to a gang unit in one of California’s roughest cities. Lawless’s SWAT team colleagues never guessed that he longed to be ‘a normal girl’. In 2005 he had a sex-change operation and began to pursue the title of long-drive queen.
But now Lawless’s career is on hold. The organisers of the World Long Drive Championship recently adopted the ‘female at birth’ policy of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. This month Lawless filed a federal lawsuit against the LPGA, arguing that the rule violates civil rights laws.
For many, Lawless is an unsettling figure. They look at the player’s rapid ascent and wonder whether female sport is about to be taken over by transsexuals: athletes legally recognised as women but enjoying the physical advantages of men. They conjure up a future Olympics at which competitors who make Eric Pickles look feminine sweep the women’s medals.
Lawless isn’t the first person to cross sport’s male-female divide. One of the earliest was Dora Ratjen, a cheerful girl with a passing resemblance to David Walliams, who competed in the 1936 women’s Olympic high jump. Two years later the athlete was arrested after a train conductor reported seeing ‘a man dressed as a woman’. Ratjen confessed that he was indeed a man and narrowly escaped jail after promising never to compete again.
In the early 1960s two beefy Russian sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, reigned over women’s track and field, breaking 26 world records between them. Journalists nicknamed them the ‘Press brothers’. When the authorities introduced an intimate physical inspection at the 1966 European championships, Time magazine noted drily that the sisters ‘stayed at home to care for their sick mother’. They then disappeared from international competition.
The sex test was inspired by the case of Sin Kim Dan, an explosive North Korean runner who held the women’s world records for the 400 and 800 metres until a man came forward and identified her as his long-lost son. It’s not clear whether the new regime rooted out more male imposters. But it certainly left many female competitors feeling degraded.
The visual examination was replaced by laboratory analysis. Sadly, testers didn’t know that some women have a genetic condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). They possess a male Y chromosome but their bodies didn’t respond to male sex hormones in the womb, causing them to develop female genitalia. The test was based on chromosomes so these women were recorded as male. That’s what happened to the Spanish hurdler María José Martinez Patiño, who failed the gender exam at the 1985 World University Games. After a grotesque two-year ordeal she was diagnosed with AIS and allowed to compete again.
Blanket tests stopped in 1999. But they are still used in doubtful cases and retain their knack for creating human misery. The authorities at the 2006 Asian Games stripped the Indian 800-metre runner Santhi Soundarajan of her silver medal after she failed the exam. The following year she attempted suicide. It’s likely that she also has AIS. Then, of course, there’s Caster Semenya, the South African teenager who gained unwanted celebrity last year when she was forced to take the test after her victory at the World Athletics Championships.
But transsexuals, rather than genetic outliers, are the bogeymen of women’s sports. The better they perform, the more they are loathed by rivals, as the transsexual downhill mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq discovered when she won the 2006 Canadian national championships. The second-placed rider wore a T-shirt on the podium that read ‘100 per cent Pure Woman Champ’.
The science suggests that protests against transsexual athletes are misplaced. While men have a physical edge over women in almost every discipline, male-to-female transsexuals have no guarantee of sporting success. This is partly because treatment following sex-change operations reduces levels of testosterone, the hormone that builds up bone and muscle mass in men. An American report issued this month concluded: ‘Any athletic advantages a transgender girl or woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of oestrogen therapy.’
If they were superior athletes, wouldn’t you expect there to be at least one transsexual sporting household name? But no transsexual has dominated a sport as, say, Michael Jordan ruled basketball. The fear is out of all proportion to the reality. And there are only a handful of top-level transsexual athletes. If there’s going to be a transsexual takeover of women’s sport, as some suggest, they will need thousands of reinforcements.
Sports authorities shouldn’t waste time pondering how female women athletes are, because physical equality is not a true sporting value. The swimmer Michael Phelps has a huge bodily advantage over his rivals, but they don’t complain that they weren’t also born with flippers and arms shaped like paddles. Sport is a celebration of inequality.
So why have a male-female divide at all? Because ending the so-called ‘gender apartheid’ would lead to the virtual elimination of women from elite sports. Separating men and women in competition is a nearly universal practice, even at chess tournaments. Any change would be highly disruptive: female professionals would lose their livelihoods and girls would be discouraged from playing sports; and, perhaps worst of all, there would be no more women’s Olympic beach volleyball.
As long as there is a male-female division in sports there will be people stealing across the border. But there are more important things to worry about, such as whether we will have another chance to see Lana Lawless’s pigtails shake as she blasts the ball skywards at the World Long Drive Championship.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 23, 2010