PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Sports

Over the Line: On Sports' "Irritable Reaching"

As the controversy surrounding Semenya Caster demonstrates, the sports world -- filled with statistics, measurements, and results -- is by its very nature fundamentally at odds with the chaos that surrounds it.

"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.

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

Author: Gerald N. Callahan

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Publication date: 2009-07

Length: 208 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $24.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/x/xxyy-cover.jpgGender 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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.