Policing the Body Athletic

A Zimbabwean athlete receives a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for masquerading as a female athlete (emphasis mine):

Samukeliso Sithole — a triple jumper and runner who competed as a woman at several international sports events — was convicted on charges of impersonation and offending the dignity of a woman athlete who undressed in his presence, unaware he was a man.

. . .

Sithole told the court at his first appearance that he had both female and male organs and that he lived as a woman after consulting a traditional healer. A medical examination showed that he was a man.

Two things jump out at me from this story. One has to do with the "crimes" that Sithole committed: impersonation and offending a woman's dignity. The first seems a little arbitrary to me — though I am not a lawyer, I believe that the crime of impersonation usually involves actually appropriating someone else's identity for personal gain. In this case, Sithole assumed a gender, not an individual identity. The purported offence of dignity is an extension of that gender role, not some Peeping Samukeliso trying to get a glimpse of women in segregated shower rooms.

Not only am I not a lawyer, but I am not a diviner of bullshit either. Nonetheless, let us assume for a moment that Sithole is telling the truth about being both male and female, and that a traditional healer advised that he should henceforth live as a woman. Then we have another example in which modern medical-scientific practice trumps traditional medicine, exposing yet again how the high performance athletic body is discursively constructed and subsequently policed.


4 responses to Policing the Body Athletic

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  1. Andrea Watpool says:

    I found this reading to be very interesting and shocking. I have never heard of a male actually competing as a female in an international sport. Many people like to joke around about the whole idea and ask guys to “put on a wig and play" but never seriously for the reasons that it is illegal. According to new reports, Samukeliso Sithole real name was Fadzai Fuzani and he had been using a fake birth certificate. He further explains to the reporters that the traditional healer made his male organ disappear but it just recently sprouted again (newzimbabwe.com, 2006). I definitely feel he deservers 3 and a half years in jail because of fraud and misconception.
    Looking at this in a different perspective, if it was a female portraying as a male she wouldn’t get in half as much trouble and most likely wouldn’t go to jail. For example, Justine the 12 yr. old girl hockey player who pretended she was a boy so she could compete with them. People don’t see it as a benefit for a female to compete as a male as they would see a male competing as a female. This goes around the stereotype that women are not as highly skilled or competitive in sports.

  2. Katie Donohue says:

    I agree with Andrea that if it were to be a female acting as a male, this would be less of a dramatic event, in my opinion because females are not seen as a competitive threat in male dominated sports, but males are seen as a threat in female sports. This is why even though was not an individual he impersonated (gender instead), I believe that he thought it was for personal gain.

    I also don't believe his story about being both male and female, and that a traditional healer advised him to live as a woman. If this were in some way to be true he should have addressed the organizers so that a specific accommodation could have been made for him in relation to dressing rooms as well as whether or not he would compete as a male or female, since he is obviously somewhat comfortable with his sexuality. If he would have done this it he would have avoided all the trouble caused by him dilemma.

  3. Kate Verheyen says:

    I'm not really sure what to think about this incident. I believe that two issues need to be addressed here. First of all, did this man participate in a female event because he did in fact believe he was a woman? Or is there some other hidden agenda here? Issues of gender and what is socially accepted as "masculine" and "feminine" has been an area of intense debate in the last couple of decades. From the time of birth, children are taught to act in certain ways that follow the gender ideology of our society. With these gender ideologies, gender role stereotyping emerges in full form. Women are weak and fragile, men are tough and physically superior, all of these stereotypes result in unequal access and opportunity for females to participate in a respected, high level of athletic spectacle. Secondly, with all the struggles that women have had to overcome in the past, and presently still today in order to be recognized athletically in today's society, I feel that what Sithole has done through this event more than anything else, is reveal the double standards present in sport. An example of this is the issue that arose in 2003 when Anneka Sorenstam brought up the idea of playing in the men's Professional Golfing Association. The thought of a woman playing in a "man's" game was compared to a "contamination" of sport, and what it takes to be a "man." But, despite these discriminatory views, nothing else really happened to Sorenstam, whereas Sithole has been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for participating in a female event. Although I realize there are other issues of dignity, and impersonation relevant to his sentence, it seems to me that there is more to it than that. I cannot help but feel that in a way his sentence to 3 1/2 years overemphasizes society's construction of female athletic competition as inferior to that of their male counterparts.

  4. Jackie Cramp says:

    I found this story to be rather interesting because in society, it is the males that that hold the power. In class, we learned about male privilege and how it is the male population that has the most access to, and control of the sporting sphere. Because of that, it seems more likely for a woman to dress as a man to be able to participate in an event that she may not have access to as a woman. After all the fighting that women have done to gain more equal rights to participate in sport, it seems odd that someone who is a man and who has everything that women have been fighting for, would pretend to be a woman.