Over the Line: On Sports’ “Irritable Reaching”

[13 September 2009]

By Tobias Peterson

“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
— John Keats

John Keats was probably not a big sports fan. His poor health and preference for poetry aside, he no doubt would have been turned off by the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” that is, ultimately, the foundation upon which all organized sports are based. The goal, generally, is to determine the fact of athletic prowess—be it strength, speed, strategy, etc.—as measured by a specific and thorough collection of rules and regulations. Sports are designed, in short, to eliminate the kind of uncertainties that Keats extolled in his discussion of art.

Which is why, perhaps, sports and art seem to occupy such distance from one another in the cultural spectrum. One favors competition, the other expression. One penalizes rule-breaking; the other often lauds it. And, where art often thrives on ambiguity, sports—much to the dismay of 18-year-old runner Caster Semenya—demands clarity.

Semenya, a South African who recently won the 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin, has seen her victory tainted by accusations that she’s not really (or wholly) a woman. After complaints were alleged by her competitors, the IAFF (International Association of Athletic Federations) requested Semenya to undergo testing that would, ostensibly, determine her gender.

Or not. It seems that such a test is not simply ticking a box after an anatomical check-up. It involves chromosomal and genetic profiling, as well. And even then, the case may not be settled. There are instances of women who appear anatomically “normal” but who test for the male XY chromosome. The reverse is also true.

cover art

Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes

Gerald N. Callahan

(Chicago Review Press; US: Jul 2009)

Gender ambiguity, in fact, is neither a new nor particularly revelatory phenomenon. Books like Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes, by Gerald Callahan, detail that gender is not really a set of two opposing categories, but more a spectrum of anatomical and chemical traits that are, in the end, crudely shoved into one of two boxes by society.

It should come as no surprise, then, that not everyone fits neatly into these prescriptive categories (about 2,000 children per year are born in the US alone exhibiting some form of mixed gender traits, according to Callahan). And yet sports, in taking its cue from a socially-constructed, rigid determinism, has forever operated under the notion that men should compete against men, and women against women. It’s a seductive premise, really, and one that promises, as all sports do, to simplify the world around us into an easy-to-understand series of binaries: home team/away team, good guys/bad guys, winners/losers, girls/boys. 

The problem, of course, is that such binaries never admit the full complexity of life, which will always resist the simplifications imposed upon it from without. Part of the attraction of sports is that it affords an escape from the overwhelming complications of “real life” by offering a contest that’s governed by well-defined rules and pitting one side against another. What happens “on the field” (or pitch or diamond or court) is seen in black and white, surrounded by the ambiguous gray of life lived “off the field”. And yet, the gray creeps in.

The results can be more profoundly disturbing than the humiliation suffered by an athlete, like Semenya, who threatens the fragile yet persistent pillars that hold up our collective sense of “normalcy”. This is not to discount Semenya’s needless persecution in any way, but rather to see, at the root of this injustice, a structural fault in the way sports is constructed in the popular imagination. For help with this, we can turn to John Keats.

Sports promises the uncomplicated, the resonable, the factual. Mysteries don’t do well in the sporting world. Through umpires, backed up by countless camera angles, any kind of ambiguity is ruled upon and so ruled out. In short, sports offers to make neat and tidy sense of what’s happening before us. As the controversy surrounding Semenya demonstrates, though, the sports world—filled with statistics, measurements, and results—is by its very nature fundamentally at odds with the chaos that surrounds it.

A great many sports controversies stem directly from just such a contradiction. For example, how can one root for a quarterback who’s been implicated for killing dogs? Or one who sells his services to a bitter rival for the sake of personal glory? Michael Vick and Brett Favre represent just the two latest controversies of one particular sport. In both instances, the social realities of the players’ lives have not been mirrored by their on-field success.

In the same way, Semenya’s potentially ambiguous nature makes her problematic for her own sport. The reality is, however, that athletes everywhere will forever occasion controversy if they are held to match the same unrealistic contrivances of the games they play. Sports, for all of its boundary-marking and tabulating, is inextricably linked to real life and its accompanying mysteries. To insist otherwise then, is merely to ensure the perpetuation of media-fanned outrage and speculation (and, of course, the employment of those who lead these indignant charges).

So how does one solve a problem like Semenya? For the cut-and-dried sports world, this is a difficult question to answer. If there is a decision reached, it’s bound to fall short of allowing for the kind of variety and difference that populates reality. For this reason, Keats’ Negative Capability might not just be an artistic touchstone, but a standard by which should look at every imperfect, chaotic, human athlete that performs for our enjoyment. To insist otherwise is a recipe for perpetual controversy and meaningless indignation.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/110424-over-the-line-on-sports-irritable-reaching/