Galen Rupp
Galen Rupp wins the 2017 Chicago Marathon

When Galen Rupp won the Chicago Marathon on October 8, 2017, he ran a personal best of 2:09:20, edging out the 2016 champion, Abel Kirui, by 28 seconds.

Congratulations Galen Rupp! A three-time Olympian, Rupp won silver in the 10K at the London Olympics, and bronze in the marathon at the Rio Olympics.

But after the Chicago Marathon, the popular runner’s publication, Let’s Run, gave Rupp a new distinction in the article celebrating his victory – “1st American-Born Winner in 35 Years.” Let’s Run’s Facebook followers picked up on the politically nuanced headline and reacted not only to the inaccuracies, but the racial and gender overtones:

  • MDW: Khalid Khannouchi may not have been born in the US, but he was, when he won, and is still American. He won in 2000 and 2002. Don’t discredit his wins as an American
  • JP: Well said. The title sounds like a trump supporter.
  • MDW: No, just a typical Letsrun or FloTrack headline. Misleading.
  • SL: Not just misleading but incorrect. First American born MALE to win in 35 years.
  • MDW: Even better!
  • JP: “First American Born God Fearing White Male Winner of Chicago Marathon Crushes Darker Skinned Heathens from Other Side of Wall!” There. I fixed it.
  • MDW: Not funny.
  • JP: Lighten up. It’s the internet.

Lets Run Galen Rupp Headline

The last American to win the Chicago Marathon, as pointed out by MDW in the Facebook post, is Khalid Khannouchi, who in fact, has won the Chicago Marathon four times, twice in 1997 and 1999 as a Moroccan, and twice in 2000 and 2002 as an American. Khannouchi became a naturalized citizen of the United States on May 2, 2000.

Like my grandfather who became a naturalized citizen in the 1950s and my mother who became a naturalized citizen in the 1960s, Khannouchi is an American citizen. The Let’sRun.com headline for Rupp’s victory could have been “1st Male American Winner in 35 Years,” but the editors made a conscious decision to politicize their headline. In the article they provide further explanation of why they think this accomplishment is significant:

While Khalid Khannouchi and Meb Keflezighi have delivered plenty of incredible performances for the U.S., a win of this magnitude by a non-African-born American has been a long time coming, and it’s never happened during the current era of Kenyan/Ethiopian dominance. Rupp’s win wasn’t just big for the U.S.; it was big for the rest of the world, as well. It had been almost nine years since a man born outside of Africa had won a World Marathon Major (Marilson Gomes dos Santos in New York in 2008). Rupp’s win today was a breakthrough, but it remains to be seen whether he is a generational talent or if his win can open the doors for other non-Africans to contend on the sport’s biggest stages. If we had to choose right now, we’d lean toward the “generational talent” explanation.

Martin Fritz Huber, who writes on running in OusideonLine.com, wrote this counter-point article entitled “We Shouldn’t Care Where a Runner is Born.”

On the one hand, this can be read as an innocuous acknowledgement of (East) African dominance in distance running; for a stark example of the latter, check out this comprehensive list of the fastest marathons ever run. More problematically, one could argue that creating an African-born vs. non-African-born binary imposes racial categories, and, needless to say, the historical precedents here are not good. To put matters in these terms also addresses distance running’s perpetual elephant in the room: whether or not, and to what degree, race and/or ethnicity signifies a “natural” competitive advantage.

Khalid Khannouchi

To me, this controversy smacks of the birther debate during Barak Obama’s tenure as president, when loud voices continued (continue) to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. The whole point about sports is that the best person wins, and the whole point about the American Dream, is that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” through hard work and lack of barriers.

My grandfather emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1903, and helped build a strong community in Japan Town in San Francisco through his work as an elder in the Japanese Church of Christ and executive director of the Japanese YMCA. While he had to wait until the 1950s to become a naturalized American citizen, he helped countless others become solid American citizens. He was as American as they come, and I would hate to see an asterisk indicating that his contributions were less so because he was not born in the United States.

He, as much as Khannouchi, has made America great.

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Synchronized Swimmers Bill May and Christina Jones
Synchronized Swimmers Bill May and Christina Jones

The Tokyo2020 Olympics will be the closest the Olympics have ever come to gender equality, with female:male participation reaching an amazing 48.8 to 52.2 percent ratio. This list from the IOC shows an amazing level of equality in the 321 events currently planned for Tokyo.

In part two of this look at the remaining holdouts of gender-specific events, let’s take a look at the women-only events.

No Men Allowed

  • Synchronized Swimming: Bill May is a relative rarity in sports – a male synchronized swimmer. When people wonder if men compete in a sport heavily represented by women, May is the poster child. Essentially, he’s the only one. There are discussions of adding male synchronized swimming as an Olympic event, but that would not happen until 2024 at the earliest. Synchronized swimming emerged from a sport called “water ballet” in Europe in the late 19th century. What’s interesting, according to this article, is that synchronized swimming as a show or a sporting event at that time was male only. But as people understood that women actually had body make ups that made them more effective as synchronized swimmers, women began to play bigger roles in events and competitions. The association of women to this discipline became stronger in America in the 1930s, when a swimming coach named Kay Curtis developed a form of “water pageantry” which we today call synchronized swimming, and publicized it through a swimming act known as the Modern Mermaids, a show that became very popular across America.
  • Rhythmic Gymnastics: Rhythmic Gymnastics, which involves elements of ballet, gymnastics and dance while manipulating a rope, hoop, ball and/or ribbon, has been an Olympic sport since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, this discipline was born from the work of men in France “who all believed in movement expression, where one used dance to express oneself and exercise various body parts,” according to Wikipedia. So why the gender split? The New York Times essentially concluded in this article that real men don’t do rhythmic gymnastics. “There are male rhythmic gymnasts, but not at the Olympics. And their numbers are small. The stigma of the term rhythmic gymnastics poses “a huge marketing challenge,” said Mario Lam, a martial arts and gymnastics instructor in Canada. Lam uses the term “martialgym” to help avoid the connotation that it is a female-only sport, he said.”
  • Balance Beam: As this site explains, the gymnastics discipline of the balance beam is an event that requires “an obscene amount of strength, flexibility, and balance” on a long and narrow piece of wood, 10cm wide and 500cm long. The reason why men don’t compete? “Basically, the decision to keep men off of the balance beam most likely borrows from centuries-old gender norms. …the balance beam requires a particular amount of grace and flexibility — traits that are designated to the women of gymnastics, whereas the men’s sport keeps a more specific focus on displays of strength.”
Man on balance beam
Man on balance beam
Zach Railey in a Finn
Zach Railey in a Finn

Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post

Take a look at this list of planned Tokyo 2020 events and you’ll see that there is equality in almost every sports category. Can’t say that for much of the work world!

Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.

No Women Allowed

  • Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
  • Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
  • 50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
  • Rings: Again, men have the advantage in upper body strength vis-a-vis women. So perhaps the number of women competing in this gymnastics discipline never reached critical mass. And yet, according to this site, women competed in the rings (or as they used to be called, “the flying rings”, at the 1948 London Olympics as a part of the Women’s Team All Around competition. Women never competed in the rings again after the ’48 Games, and I don’t know why.
  • Pommel Horse: Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?

 

Woman on Rings

Hermann Ratjen alias "Dora Ratjen"
Dora Ratjen competing in 1937.

When the child was born, the midwife told the expected parents, “It’s a boy!” Then a few minutes later, the midwife said, “it’s a girl, after all.”

Dora Ratjen was born on November 20, 1918. When she was in her teenage years, Ratjen began to compete in sports, strong enough to take fourth place at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the high jump. And at the age of 20, she won a gold medal at the European Athletics Championships with a world record high jump of 1.67 meters. But the previous world record holder, Dorothy Tyler-Odam, said what everyone else thought, “she’s not a woman, she’s a man.”

On September 21, 1939, a train conductor reported that there was a man dressed as a woman in his train. Ratjen was pulled off the train and questioned by the police. He showed official papers that proved his female gender, but a doctor quickly concluded that Ratjen was a man. The German government returned Ratjen’s gold medal. As it turned out, Dora Ratjen had always thought he was a man, and eventually changed his name to Heinrich, a name he had until he passed away in 2008. In 2009, the German magazine, Der Spiegel, revealed these details about Ratjen’s sexual ambiguity.

Hermann Ratjen alias "Dora Ratjen"

The New York Times recently had a fantastic piece on gender ambiguity, and the humiliation a small group of athletes have had to endure to confirm their gender. The truth is, it is not clear cut as to whether certain people are definitively a man or a woman. Tests over the decades have looked at chromosomes, hormones, genetalia or reproductive organs, but there are still many cases where the gender of a given person is unclear. According to the Times, experts use the term “intersex” to describe such cases, but that may be the only thing they agree upon.

Estimates of the number of intersex people vary widely, ranging from one in 5,000 to one in 60, because experts dispute which of the myriad conditions to include and how to tally them accurately. Some intersex women, for instance, have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but because of a genetic quirk are born with ambiguous genitalia, neither male nor female. Others have XY chromosomes and undescended testes, but a mutation affecting a key enzyme makes them appear female at birth; they’re raised as girls, though at puberty, rising testosterone levels spur a deeper voice, an elongated clitoris and increased muscle mass. Still other intersex women have XY chromosomes and internal testes but appear female their whole lives, developing rounded hips and breasts, because their cells are insensitive to testosterone. They, like others, may never know their sex development was unusual, unless they’re tested for infertility — or to compete in world-class sports.

Over the decades, there have been plenty of claims of gender cheating in sport. People say, if she looks like a man, he must be a man. And due to the measures of testing in the past, women have had to go through humiliating tests, and have been shamed as cheats, Polish sprinter, Ewa Klobukowska, a case in point in the 1960s.

But there is a blurred space between men and women, an area still not fully understood by scientists or authorities – the intersex gender.

Hiroshi Hase, wrestler and minister
Hiroshi Hase, Olympian, wrestler and Minster of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

He was a teacher in classic Japanese literature. He was an Olympian, competing in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1984 Olympiad in Los Angeles. He had a long and successful career as a pro wrestler, starting his career in Puerto Rico, Canada and the Soviet Union before becoming a star in Japan, particularly in his tag team performances with Kensuke Sasaki. Towards the end of a storied career in wrestling, Hiroshi Hase ( ) followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Antonio Inoki, by being elected into the Upper House of the Japanese Diet in 2005, as an independent in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Which brings us to today.

Today, Hase is the head of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. And in the Japanese bureaucracy, it is the sub-departments in this Ministry that make decisions regarding the Olympic Games. And Hase has already stated that he intends to push hard for the protection of the rights of the LGBT community in Japan, using the Olympics as a platform.

“Let me be clear on this: I believe sexual-minority students at elementary and junior high schools have been left out” to the extent that people around them, including teachers, friends and family, have little understanding of the issues they face, said Hiroshi Hase, a few days ago in this Japan Times article.

In another Japan Times article from 7 months ago, Hase was quoted as saying that the Sochi Olympics were a lesson for us all, hearing that many Western leaders did not attend the opening ceremonies due to the openly hostile attitude towards the LGBT community in Russia.

As a four-time Olympic host, Japan has the responsibility of calling for social change through sports, Hase said.

Is the bureaucracy in Japan ready for this? Skepticism reigns, but optimism can conquer.

Cartoon entitled "Onna no Manako: Aki no Yoru wa Nagai",, from the November 11, 1964 issue of Shinfujin
Cartoon entitled “Onna no Manako: Aki no Yoru wa Nagai”,, from the November 11, 1964 issue of Shinfujin

One of my purchases in Jimbocho, the center for old books and magazines in Tokyo, is a copy of a popular woman’s magazine, Shinfujin (新婦人). The term “shinfujin” or “new woman” was a phrase that grew out of a feminist movement in Japan in the early 20th century. As Wikipedia states, shinfujin “denoted women who wore fashionable Western dress, socialized with men in public, and chose their own romantic partners.”

Shinfujin, 11 November1964
Shinfujin, 11 November1964

This particular issue was published a month after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. In addition to a quick feature on the venues of the Olympic Games, it gives guidance on flower arrangement, fashion and the latest in stereo systems, for example. Towards the end of this issue is a striking cartoon about a single woman’s evening. It is surprisingly dark, with the illustration representing the start of the woman’s evening as the entrance into a snake’s mouth. A date turns into a leche, the train commute home is filled with gropers, and while she dreams of marriage, she cannot escape the nightmare of a snake.

The cartoon is drawn by someone called Inoue Yousuke, which is a man’s name. But I imagine the illustration still captured the unsaid thoughts of many women who read what appears to be a magazine targeting women of refinement.

Has Japan changed in 50 years?

Why does Japan today have train and subway cars that allow only women during rush hour?

womenonly

AP, October 22, 1964
AP, October 22, 1964

“The shortest of shorts are being worn by British girls. And the tightest of sweaters appear to be worn by the women of Poland.” That’s how AP described the scene in October 22 as the 1964 Olympic Games were winding down and many of the athletes had finished their competitive pursuits.

The AMC series Mad Men have recently given us a chance to revisit the sexism of the 1960s, but it is still jarring to read in the wire clippings of the time how women were viewed by men, particularly American sports writers.

In an October 6 article, headlined “Olympic Beauty Standards Different From Any Other”, the AP writer explains “… to be brutally frank, after looking over the crop gathering for the Olympics which open Saturday, it must be reported that there are very few lady athletes whose faces will stop traffic.”

This writer goes on to explain the vocabulary used by him and his colleagues to describe women are, admittedly, hard to imagine seeing in today’s print press:

  • Attractive – Well, she must be a girl because the Russians say she is, and we can’t even get an agreement to inspect their nuclear bomb sites.
  • Pretty- Nobody has ever actually stepped on her face with a spiked shoe.
  • Lovely – She bathes after every race.
  • Gorgeous – She parked her truck outside.
  • Glamorous – She has had at last one permanent since spring.
  • Vivacious – She speaks English.
  • Shy – She doesn’t.

Somewhat relevant, here is a great video featuring Mad Men star, Christina Hendricks, showing how sexism exists in subtler ways today.