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Unfair Competitive Advantage: What’s It All About, Aimee?

posted by Pat Griffin's LGBT Sport Blog
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 12:33pm EST

A weekly commentary on sports news, sports competition, media, research and people related to addressing homophobia, heterosexism, sexism and racism in sport.

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I just read this article written by Aimee Mullins, an accomplished track athlete and former President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, who runs with two woven carbon fiber Cheetah Legs. Her article is a dissection and refutation of “unfair competitive edge” arguments used against athletes with disabilities who want to compete against athletes who do not have disabilities.

Mullins sums up her argument:

“The crux of that question lays under the umbrella of ethics, which should indeed govern our rule structure within the competitive arena, but there's something in this story which specifically points toward a deep-seated fear, one we don't want to talk about in polite conversation, one which parallels historical instances of racial integration of sport and gender integration of sport. If we allow a person, one who we view as our inferior (in whatever way), to play with us, and then that person beats us, what does that say about us?”

Mullins makes the point that sport is based on gaining an advantage and asks the question, how do we separate gaining an advantage within the bounds of the rules we have agreed to in a sport and gaining an “unfair” advantage. And I would add, who gets to decide which is which? Few people would agree that all athletes who enter a contest have an equal chance to win. Each one has advantages and disadvantages based on genetic gifts from their parents, training regimens, access to the coaching and state of the art sports equipment, access to clean air and good nutrition, discrimination, financial resources, mental toughness and on and on.

Mullins asks the question, why are her Cheetah Legs seen as an unfair advantage in a race with athletes who run on their own legs when we do not disqualify athletes based on these other advantages? Why do we suddenly get all concerned about a “level playing field” when we know there is no such thing?

Mullins’ article focuses on athletes with disabilities, but the argument can be applied to other situations where we fret about competitive equity too. When intersex or transgender athletes want to compete in women’s sports, similar concerns are raised about unfair competitive advantages. We wrestled with these questions at length at the Transgender Think Tank a few weeks ago. One of our guiding principles was to “preserve the integrity” of women’s sport as we discussed policies that would enable transgender athletes to compete in their preferred gender (most people’s concerns focus on transgender or intersex women competing in women’s sports, not transgender or intersex men competing in men’s sports though there are issues there as well).

When women competitors take the field, dive into the pool or run onto the court, the range of differences among them is wide. Competitive equity is a relative term. Using Aimee’s argument, how do we decide when a transgender or intersex woman has an unfair competitive advantage and why do we focus on her potential advantages when we do not worry about the advantages or disadvantages of the other women in the competition? It’s because we see these variations as normal. We expect them. I won because I am taller, stronger, more skilled, more determined, I worked harder. I deserved to win. Our challenge is to stretch our vision of what is normal to include competitors who have been excluded based on fears and prejudices or our desire to maintain a sense of superiority. Excluding athletes of color, women, lesbians and gay men, people with disabilities, transgender and intersex athletes have historically and still are too often based on these fears and prejudices. The similarities among the arguments used to justify this exclusion or limitation is surprisingly similar regardless of the group being targeted.

Interesting connections, don’t you think?

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