Two young women train themselves obsessively hard on the running track, barely giving themselves time to grow up in the midst of giving their all to competition. They sacrifice much in the hope that they might achieve their dream of Olympic triumph. That is, until one of them, on the threshold of international breakthrough, finds the dream stolen from her by the judgement of the sporting authorities that she is not enough of a woman, but is instead “some monster…abnormal”.
This is the story told affectingly in the excellent new play Fair Play, produced at the wonderful Bush Theatre in London. It’s a story told in small vignettes, snapshots of the pain of training and occasional glory of success as the women develop over years. We knit these scenes together and find ourselves deeply invested in the individuals and in their relationship (challenged as it is). That’s helped by a pair of highly engaging performances from NicK King as Ann and Charlotte Beaumont as Sophie.
The play takes obvious inspiration, as well as from author Ella Road’s own experiences as a junior athlete, from the case of South Africa’s Caster Semenya. Semenya stormed the world of women’s middle distance running until cruelly public steps to disqualify her from competitions for perceived ‘excess’ levels of testosterone, due to her hyperandrogenism.
Ann’s suffering at facing a similar ban is clear: “I found myself removed from the one category I thought I was part of, the one party I was pretty sure I was invited to.” And she challenges Sophie – and the audience – to consider whether this particular line is drawn fairly. She points out that elite athletes benefit variously from specific genetic advantages, such as their height, the efficiency of their muscles, and their ability to deal with lactic acid. These advantages are deemed on the fair side of the competitive line while others are not.
These decisions are particularly hard on women of colour, Ann asserts. She notes that none of the female athletes excluded for conditions similar to Semenya’s are white, that sport’s definitions of femininity are set mostly by men. “The Empire might have died but they’re still doing a pretty good job of colonising our bodies,” she rages.
And unfairness of other forms is also wholly accepted. Ann notices the comfortable middle class upbringing that Sophie has enjoyed, the safe foundations on which her life and her running has been built. This helped Ann understand how Sophie always acted “as if there weren’t any cracks to fall through, as if everything would turn out all right”. Ann complains that after her disqualification, in spite of those unfair benefits it was Sophie who got to talk to the media about fairness.
It is right that we feel uncomfortable watching this. For many, it challenges pre-conceptions. As Jesse Wall of the Auckland Faculty of Law points out, none of the people who compete in elite sport can really be considered ‘normal’. They have trained their bodies to deliver performances beyond what could be considered an ordinary range. And in most (perhaps all) cases they had a starting point of talent and genetic advantage that gave them a personal step-up, and attracted them to their sport in the first place. It is seeing the extraordinary achievements of these extraordinary people that creates much of the joy of watching elite athletics. The sporting playing field is never entirely level. When we accept so many advantaged positions and choose to exclude some individuals on the basis of their particular starting advantages, we definitely are making a choice. That choice may or may not add to the sum of the world’s fairness.
It is particularly striking that this choice has been made given that there is some debate as to whether testosterone gives an athlete any advantage at all. It may be that the issue only arose for the sport because heightened testing gradually pushed cheats towards using natural hormones instead of the prior drugs, such as steroids. That was a different world: I recall feeling cheated having watched the victories of the doped athletes of East Germany, and the performances of others where doping was later proved. I do not feel the same in thinking back to Semenya’s performances; her running was clearly her very natural gift. Ironically, two of Semenya’s gold medals (for the 2011 World Championships and 2012 London Olympics) were only awarded after the athlete who crossed the line ahead of her – Mariya Savinova – was shown to have been part of Russia’s systematic drug cheating regime. Semenya then was robbed and it’s hard not to think she was robbed again by her ban from the sporting authorities. In seeking to be fair to her female competitors, those authorities were not fair to Semenya, and nor were they in Fair Play to Ann.
For self-isolation reasons I only got to see the play late in its run, which has now ended. But it is to be streamed online between February 7th and 12th. I would highly recommend it.
Apologies if the quotes I have captured are not wholly accurate. I caught them to the best of my ability.
Caster Semenya: ‘Once I thought she was cheat. Now I’m sure she belongs in women’s athletics’, Fernando Duarte, BBC, 11 September 2020
Caster Semenya and a level playing field, Jesse Wall, Journal of Medical Ethics Vol 46 No 9, September 2020
Online stream of Fair Play, 7-12 February 2022