A Philosopher's Blog

Mike’s Run: The Quest for Lightness

Posted in Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2013


Gender Mystery & Sports

Posted in Ethics, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2009
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Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.

Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.

One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.

This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.

Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.

Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course,  the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. One interesting thing about gender sorting is that it is presumably justified on the basis of fairness. As noted above, men tend to have an advantage over women in physical competition. For example, the best male runner will be much faster than the best female runner. Given this fact, having men and women compete against each other in such events would be unfair, because the men would tend to win because of their natural advantages. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.

One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports.  Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.

Some sports, like running, could sort people based on performance rather than gender. While this would tend to result in men being in the top slots, it would make for some interesting competition and would provide more in the way of gender equality. It would also be fair since people would be competing against those of comparable abilities.

Naturally, it could be argued that women would be being treated unfairly in such competition-after all, while they would compete in their performance grades, they would almost certainly not be winning the top places overall. This would create a nifty bit of irony: this most equal sort of competition would also seem to be rather “unfair” to women because they would have to compete against men.

Getting back to the original story that started the discussion, it should be noted that high testosterone levels can occur naturally in “normal” women. This would not be “cheating” anymore than a person who is born with superior lung capacity would be cheating.

It should also be noted that athletes can test for higher levels of testosterone because they have been using synthetic testosterone as a steroid. In this case, the ethics of the situation would be quite clear.

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Breakfast on the Track and Tactical Running

Posted in Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2008

Today was one of my favorite running events: the Breakfast on the Track. This event consists of a mile track race run in heats. That is the track part. Pancakes and watermelon are served as well. That is the breakfast part.

I’ve never been much of a miler, although my father set a record for his highschool in that event (without training and wearing baseball spikes-he did it because someone said he wasn’t very fast). Back in high school, I could run a 5 minute mile and in college I could break 5 minutes easily. However, I was much better at running 5Ks, 5 miles (cross country) and 10Ks. When I first moved to Tallahassee, I could still run a sub 5 minute mile. These days, not so much. Fortunately, while age slows a person down, it also grants wisdom.

Watching the mile heats, I realized that all people saw was how well (or poorly) a person happened to be doing in his or her heat. Since blazing speed is no longer a viable option for me, I decided that I’d go for the illusion of speed by entering a heat that I stood a chance of winning rather than one where I’d be dead last.

So, I entered the 5:40-6:00 mile heat. I got boxed in at the start, and ended up running about 200 yards before I could surge around people and take the lead. Fueled by the adrenalin rush of doing something a bit stupid, I took quite a commanding lead. Naturally, that did not last and people were starting to close in on me. Fortunately, while age has robbed me of the speed of the wings of my youth, my pain tolerance and will are doing just fine. I refused to yield and increased my speed for the final lap. One person decided that he was going to go for the win and surged, but was unable to get by me. Victory, at least in my heat, was mine.

Afterward, my friends said that they were sure I was going to fall apart on the last lap, since I had burned up so much in the first lap. This was actually reasonable on their part. For the past few years I’ve had that problem-I just ran out of go juice near the end of races. However, I’m regaining a lot of my old endurance and have been able to use my old strategy. Even in my prime, I was not a speed racer. Rather, I relied on toughness and pain tolerance. Once I got into the lead, I’d not let it go and anyone who tried to get past me was in for a battle.

Interestingly, the battle between runners is not always about speed. Logically, the faster runner should always win, but running is more complex than that. True, the person who gets across the line first wins, but this is not just a matter of being able to have a better top speed than someone else. Racing also involves resource utilization. In racing, one main resource is physical: how much energy do you have in your body? Another resource is will: how much can you endure? Tactical running involves using those resources effectively within the race and trying to get other people to use their resources less efficiently.

For example, when I ran cross country in college, there were people who had better top speeds than I. They could easily beat me on a flat stretch. However, cross country involves terrain that can be used against other runners. One specific terrain feature is the hill. Going up a hill is tough and going down hills can be challenging. I learned quickly that I could use hills to chew up the resources of other runners. If someone was faster than me on the flats, I’d fight them on the hills. Going up the hill, I’d push them so that they were using up their energy and will faster than they desired. Going down the hill, I’d push it as hard as I could, trying to get a lead and demoralize them (I’m weirdly good on downhills).  I also found that I had  a second, third, and fourth wind: I could push really hard and then recovery very quickly.  This helped a great deal against people who recovered slower. Once we got to the flats, their better speed would come into play, but they would have less to work with because of the previous battles. If they made the mistake of running my race, I could usually beat them.

Different runners have different strengths and weaknesses. Racing well requires knowing yourself and how to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. These qualities do tend to change with time, so you need to re-assess regularly. For example, I used to be great at running uphill. Despite the fact that I run on hills everyday and do regular hillwork, I now really suck at running up hills. Fortunately, I’m still wicked on the downhill (no fear of death + strong knees and legs) and can use that to my advantage. As with all of life, it is a matter of doing the best with what you’ve got.