In the Shadows of Global Sport – Olympic Weightlifting & Desperation for the Limelight

-By Monica Nelson

Monica is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I’ll start this blog post with a declaration that should not surprise anyone who knows me: I am far from a well-rounded sports fan. From the day I first tried the Olympic lifts in 2014, I’ve framed my entire life around training and competing in Olympic Weightlifting, and am now studying it, thanks to PCS. I’ve lived so long in my Olympic Weightlifting bubble that I (frequently) forget that the sport that occupies most of my thoughts is an extremely marginal one. To be fair, I can understand its unpopularity in the U.S., and why people tend to find it funny or weird rather than awe-inspiring. I still remember the first time I ever saw an Olympic Weightlifting competition: I happened to walk by a TV playing the men’s superheavyweight session during the 2012 London Olympics and was amused by the way that the competitors grunted and yelled during heavy lifts. Lo and behold, a few years later, I became one of those red-faced, straining, yelling weightlifters – albeit moving significantly less weight and in a significantly lower tier of competition.

In forgetting its peripheral location in the realm of global sports, I also forget that not everyone knows just how corrupt (and frankly, doomed) Olympic Weightlifting is. We experience the sport in a cycle that repeats every few years: we idolize a number of incredibly strong weightlifters, fawn over their successes and world records, proclaim them the greatest of all time, find out they have tested positive for steroids (after years of negative drug tests!), and then move on to the next rising star – and we believe that this time, unlike every other time, the new fan favorite is completely steroid-free. Admittedly, this is a common process in other sports with high-prestige competitions, not just Olympic Weightlifting (Tour de France, anyone?).

The difference between Olympic Weightlifting and other sports is the scale at which this process occurs. Of all sports contested at the Olympics, Olympic Weightlifting consistently has among the highest number of positive steroid tests (63 since 2008 – tied with Athletics), and you can reliably expect that about a month after every World Championships, a wave of positive drug tests will come to light. The ninth-place finisher is awarded a belated bronze medal, world records are reset, star athletes disappear under the weight of a long-term sanction, and the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) asserts (as they do every year) that they are making promising headway in promoting clean sport. The cycle repeats endlessly, and we continue to barely remain in the Olympics.

Historically, our explanations for this rampant steroid use tend to manifest from the individual and their represented country. The athlete wants to succeed and to provide for themselves and their families, while their respective country wants to establish an identity of athletic superiority to reflect national strength and dominance. The aims of athlete and country align: so long as they are not caught, both parties (literally) profit.

We are all familiar with Russia and their state-sponsored doping scandals, of which Olympic Weightlifting is not exempt: there have been an immense number of Russian Olympic Weightlifters caught doping in the last few years. But so have a large number of weightlifters from a massive number of countries. Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey, and China were all banned from the 2017 Olympic Weightlifting World Championships due to their high number of doping offenses, while many others were simply sanctioned with athlete bans and monetary fines. More recently, Thailand’s and Egypt’s Olympic Weightlifting federations completely lost their spots in the 2020 Olympics due to high numbers of positive drug tests. The doping problem is clearly bigger than Russia’s state-sponsored doping ring. Aside from these eleven sanctioned countries, athletes from thirty-one other countries (!!) had positive drug tests in just the last Olympic quadrennial. How many of these forty-two countries do you think had elaborate schemes designed to bypass drug tests, allowing them to sneak past detection for years before being caught? Or were these countries thoughtlessly injecting their athletes with steroids despite recent International Olympic Committee (IOC) crackdowns on steroid testing and threats to remove Weightlifting from the Olympic program? Neither of these explanations stack up. Yet we continue to blame athletic and national greed for Olympic Weightlifting’s steroid problems, while holding on to the assumption that the overarching sporting institutional structure is completely unbiased and uncorruptible.

On January 3rd, 2020, the German public broadcaster ARD (who exposed the Russian doping system in 2014) released a 45-minute documentary that offered an alternate explanation to the high doping rates in Olympic Weightlifting: the IWF has created a system in which they profit both from positive drug tests and fake-negative drug tests while upholding an appearance of virtuosity to countries that commit to clean Olympic Weightlifting (the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Germany being a few of the most notable).

At the center of this quagmire is long-standing IWF President, Tamas Aján – who the filmmakers name “the Lord of the Lifters” in reference to his long tenure in positions of power. A former sport administrator from Hungary, Aján has been the undefeated leader of the IWF for the last 20 years, after having served as the IWF general secretary for 24 years prior to his current position. At Aján’s insistence, the IWF contracts with a Hungarian anti-doping agency, HUNADO, for nearly 80% of its in-and out-of-competition drug tests. This would not be a problem, barring a couple of minor (read: major) details.

Theoretically, the IWF is supposed to send HUNADO to perform steroid tests on high-performing athletes from all countries, both in and out of competition. Out-of-competition tests are to occur randomly, without warning the athletes or countries that the doping officials will be showing up. This is in order to ensure that the athletes are not using steroids in long intervals between major competitions. The HUNADO officials must be incorruptible, treating every athlete and country equally and doing their best to ensure clean sport. ARD revealed that this heuristic could not be further from the truth.

First, bribing HUNADO officials for clean drug tests for both athletes and teams is both rampant and beyond easy. ARD reporters discovered that the Moldovan team brought in doppelgangers of their athletes to provide clean urine samples in front of a HUNADO official, while paying between $60 and $200 for HUNADO officials to look the other way.

Second, that bribery only occurred when the IWF requested out-of-competition tests at all. ARD found that half of the Olympic medalists between 2008 and 2012 were not tested out of competition at any point, particularly those from Russia. The winningest countries and athletes in high-level competitions were simply not tested for steroid use, eliminating the need to create complex doping schemes. A country could easily bypass out-of-competition testing; in the rare event that HUNADO officials show up to give drug tests to doped-up athletes, the officials can be bribed to look the other way.

Vital in this drug-testing system is the appearance of virtue. Both the IOC and countries committed to a drug-free Olympic Weightlifting (i.e., the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy, Germany, and a number of others) ardently object to the idea of steroids, meaning, the IWF must at least pretend to adhere to its own rules for their sake. So while athletes from countries that use steroids are rarely tested out of competition, athletes from countries who attempt to train and compete clean are tested frequently – giving the impression that the IWF is strict about its doping. As long as athletes from untested, steroid-heavy countries don’t spill the beans, of course.

In the event that an athlete is actually caught taking steroids, the IWF has an iffy track record of actually announcing positive drug tests. In 2013, Azerbaijan had 18 athletes test positive for steroids prior to the World Championships… which Azerbaijan also happened to host that year. Instead of banning the positively-tested athletes, they were all allowed to compete and inevitably win medals in front of their adulating home crowd. The IWF eventually announced the positive tests, serving the athletes sanctions and Azerbaijan a $500,000 fine – but only after the conclusion of Worlds.

This last point is the most important one: the unexamined hypocrisy of an international sport agency that subtly encourages widespread steroid abuse while simultaneously projecting an air of cleanliness for the goal of spectacle and popularity. The IWF knows that Olympic Weightlifting is nowhere near being a global mainstream sport, outside of a few former Soviet nations. To pump up viewership, star athletes attempt to push the limits of the human body to wow audiences with unbelievable world records and dramatic battles for the podium. Yet, every time a world record is set, an even greater amount of effort is needed to raise the bar (literally and figuratively) to set the next world record. Steroids are almost inevitable; at a certain point, every human body reaches the limit of its ability to quickly adapt to the stress of the weights being applied to it. Progressing past this limit requires one of two things: many additional years of injury-free training, or heavy steroid use. At the same time, the Olympics is the perfect platform to draw attention to the sport, but requires athletes to test negative for steroid use, in and out of competition. From the dual aims of pushing the limits of the body and meeting the requirements necessary to retain Olympic eligibility, an institutional doping system is born: star athletes only need to test clean until the Olympics, when they roll the dice and hope their doping methods can beat the constantly-improving IOC drug tests.

Now, let’s take a moment to discuss the human cost of this long-standing corruption, because this is critical.

Also included in the ARD documentary is an interview with a Thai weightlifter who won bronze at the 2012 Olympics. She discusses the doping system in Thailand and includes the age at which she began doping: 18. While we may think this is an unacceptably young age, she notes that her 7-year tenure on the international team (which is longer than average) was because she began doping “so late” – many of her peers began using anabolic steroids as young as 13. Egypt was recently found to use a similar system: its weightlifting federation lost its Olympic eligibility after a number of young teenagers tested positive for illegal steroid use. Rampant doping is far from a new phenomenon, especially considering the suspiciously early deaths of weightlifters from earlier eras of glory – many with autopsies that reveal internal organs pickled from years of steroid use and abuse. However, allegations of child doping are a relatively new phenomenon. What high price will these athletes pay for their involvement in the sport? Did they even understand the ramifications of the choices they were making? Were they given a choice on whether to take the steroids?

By failing to uphold a universal and transparent process of drug testing, the IWF profits directly from the hopes and desperation of athletes and their home countries to secure a hunk of metal on an international stage. In doing so, the IWF draws eerily similar parallels to the NFL’s profiting off of increasingly hard-hitting plays and ever-shortening lifespans of their brain-damaged stars. The differences between the IWF and the NFL lie only in their popularity and visibility: while critical scholarship and popular writing have condemned the NFL for its relationship to CTE and high-profile athlete deaths, no such parallel exists for strength sports and Olympic Weightlifting.

Accompanying the unpopularity of strength sports is the absence of academic engagement around the rampant unchecked corruption that determines which athletes win, which athletes lose, and which athletes die young. If this blog post is anything, it’s a call to attention. Pay attention to the lower profile sports. Though the NFL and the CTE crisis deserve every bit of our attention, so do sports clinging to the periphery of the public gaze. The extent of steroid use and corruption have been an open secret in Olympic Weightlifting for a long time – after all, Olympic Weightlifting was the first Olympic sport to make use of steroids. But what might have started as a steroidal arms race between countries vying for medals and glory slowly transitioned into a two-faced institutional structure that simultaneously denies and incentivizes that arms race, regardless of the human cost – and it took until 2020 for us to notice.

Serena Williams and (Racist) Perceptions of Pain in the Medical Field

-By Tori Thompson

Tori Thompson is a PhD student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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This may not be breaking-news or surprising to some, but I was shocked last year when I read that Serena Williams almost died after giving birth to her daughter because the nurse did not believe Serena’s claim that she was in pain. My first response to reading this news was “it’s because she’s Black.” Still, I hesitated to draw to this conclusion given that Serena Williams is wealthy, a boss, and the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time) to ever step on the tennis court. I remained uncertain until reading Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present, which helped me to understand the source of my suspicions.

Washington describes how 19th and 20th century doctors whole-heartedly believed that Negroes did not feel nor fear pain like Whites do. For example, Dr. Charles White, an English physician, stated: “[Blacks] bear surgical operations much better than White people and what would be the cause of insupportable pain for white men, a Negro would almost disregard… [I have] amputated the legs of many Negroes, who have held the upper part of the limb themselves” (Washington 2006, 58). Additionally, Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology whose methods are integral to current gynecological practices, also believed, “Negressess will bear cutting with nearly, if not quite, as much impunity as dogs and rabbits” in order to justify his cutting of a Black woman’s vagina without anesthesia.

The accuracy or “truth” of these claims are not worth debating as they are clearly blasphemous, but the resultant scientific and social discourses are critical as studies show that physicians currently prescribe Black patients a lesser dose of pain prescription, if given any pain medication at all, than their white counterparts. For instance,  even though the World Health Organization (WHO) has established pain prescription guidelines for cancer patients, Black and Latino cancer patients are still less likely to receive adequate doses of pain medication—leaving them more likely to perish from cancer in pain.

Now as a doctoral student in public health, I often hear that many symptoms of pain go underreported in the Black community, especially in Black women, due to the Strong Black Woman (SBW) stereotype. I must admit that I find myself strongly identifying with this trope as my mother and her mother taught me to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” However, after reading Black Sexual Politics by Patricia Hill Collins, I personally question the value of the SBW trope and its effect on Black women’s experience of pain. Collins argues that the SBW is a stereotype historically constructed by the White slave owner in order to emasculate and denigrate the power of the Black man and contemporarily justifies the painful abuse of Black women by Black men.

In particular and through focusing on the juxtaposition of race, gender, and power, the racist logic is as follows: “the too-strong Black woman and the correspondingly too-weak black man who is her partner demonstrate the failure of Blacks to achieve and enact the ‘normal’ (that is, White) gender roles of masterful man and submissive woman”. As a consequence, the ‘too-weak’ Black man is unable to conform to the conventionally strong and dominant male role, as is constructed through hegemonic masculinity, because he has no control over his woman. In the power struggle between White and Black men, the SBW who back-talks her Black man, solidifies the ‘superior’ power of the White man. Black men, according to Collins, resist this power and stigma by “bringing a bitch to her knees” – an abuse commonly experienced by Black women who embrace the SBW stereotype.

MIND BLOWN.

When we consider the historical intersection of race, gender, and perception of pain, we may find ourselves understanding why Serena’s medical team questioned her claim of pain. The medical field has a racist lineage that disassociates pain from Blackness. While there remain pain prescription guidelines and protocol developed by health care authorities, medical professionals continue to under-prescribe to the Black community. Studies show that reasons for under-prescription lie in the common misbelief that Blacks have “super-human” qualities such as extra muscle, aging slowly, and the ability to withstand extreme heat due to their skin. This ‘superhumanization’ of Black body is associated with reduced perceptions of Black’s experience of pain. The consequences of these pervasive and harmful myths remain highly detrimental as they contribute to persisting racial disparities in pain management, leading to higher rates of suffering in Black patients. If we are to end the suffering of the Black community, it is imperative to change the way we (Black and White, and otherwise) think about strength, pain, and hardship—a daunting task that will require more than a blog post.

The Case of Antonio Brown

-By Anna Posbergh

Anna Posbergh is a PhD candidate in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Living with a former collegiate (American) football player means one thing on Sunday nights from August to February: it’s football season. As someone who grew up in a household that rarely ventures outside of watching the Weather Channel and MSNBC, every Monday morning, I read the New York Times breakdown of the past weekend’s games to attempt to intelligently contribute to excited conversations about missed two-point conversions, unbelievable pick-sixes, and situations of outstanding running-back yardage (yes, I asked my partner to read over that last bit to ensure appropriate football language).

Last week’s conversation after NFL week 3 was a bit different though, as the biggest news of the weekend wasn’t a game or a new starting quarterback. Rather, it was the ruckus around Antonio Brown, or “AB,” “retiring” from the NFL. Following the Steelers’ fallen star over the past several weeks has been something of a rollercoaster: from being traded to the Raiders for a third and a fifth-round draft pick, to his requests to be dropped from the Raiders roster, to being picked up by the Patriots within hours, I think it’s safe to say that AB had an unusually eventful few weeks. Despite his doggedness to remain within the NFL organization, it was not meant to be. Following accusations and investigations of AB’s sexual abuse scandal, he announced his departure from the NFL this past weekend after being released from the Patriots. In a series of now-deleted tweets, he called out the hypocrisy of the NFL’s treatment of other players and team owners who have also been investigated and/or suspended for allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. From former teammate Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension in 2006, to Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft’s being arrested and charged with soliciting prostitution, I noticed a glaring unifying factor in the individuals that AB called out: they were mostly all white.

Certainly, it’s not too far of a stretch to assume that, to some extent, AB is calling out the racial discrimination and hypocrisy of the NFL. And his arguments are not off-base. As scholars much brighter than me have argued elsewhere, sport’s exploitation of athletes, especially black athletes, is a recurrent theme at the amateur/collegiate and the professional levels. Marxist sensibilities tell us that this is because these athletes are perceived as cogs in the machine: trained to work as a productive commodity within the NFL operation, and easily replaced when they’ve served their purpose. Extending these arguments through a racial lens brings up memories of Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests and the backlash from it, as I and two of my colleagues discussed back in 2017. An article from the University of Michigan’s school newspaper took a more definitive stance on it in 2018, flat-out calling the NLF ‘racist.’ Issues around the NFL and race has been all the more exacerbated by the Trump conjuncture it falls within, and conservative media outlets demanding to “keep politics out of sport.”

While AB is no Kaepernick, there remains multiple layers to the racial issues undergirding the AB situation. Following AB’s antics over the past year, his recurrent demands of more pay, disagreement with disciplinary actions, and rebuking helmet regulations, a common reaction in the media has been, “AB’s off his rocker.” The media and the NFL have strategically framed AB’s behaviors as acting out and unsportsmanlike, but it is important to remember the devious nature of the NFL and media narratives. There is a fine line to navigate between rebelling against an exploitative and well-oiled machine (e.g. the NFL), and truly destructive obstreperous behavior. Making a fair assessment of AB’s recent behaviors becomes all the trickier when considering the NFL environment in terms of bodily damage, concussions and CTE, the exploitation of athletes, racial divisions in positions played, and the culture of toxic hypermasculinity. When contextualizing the AB scenario, I recurrently arrived at the question, “is AB really off his rocker, did the NFL create a media narrative to perceive him as such, or is AB the product of an exploitative and treacherous corporation?”

Issues around AB are rendered all the more complicated when factoring in the recent allegations and investigation of sexual assault. Particularly in an era of Brett Kavanaughs, Harvey Weinsteins, Larry Nassars, and the man in the Oval office, accusations and survivors of sexual assault must be taken seriously with appropriate consideration to the victim. Navigating these waters is not an easy task, and makes this already difficult situation even more complex when placing it in the NFL culture. AB calling out previous NFL-affiliated individuals investigated for sexual assault or sexual-related allegations does not detract from the fact that these were lenient penalties. Roethlisberger has enjoyed a profitable career as Pittsburgh’s quarterback since 2010 even after two accusations of sexual assault in a single year. Robert Kraft remains the owner of the Patriots despite two first-degree misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. Reuben Foster was claimed by the team from Washington in 2019 on waivers less than 72 hours after being arrested on domestic violence charges and following three arrests in 2018. These three cases of NFL-affiliated individuals continuing to enjoy a life in the NFL, despite serious accusations relating to sexual assault and abuse, exemplifies the ongoing issue of male privilege, corruption, and toxic masculinity in the NFL.

When we consider the intersections of gender, race, capitalism, McDonaldization, and football, we arrive at the issues surrounding Antonio Brown. Moreover, it brings us to the core question then, of who is really at fault here, and what side do we take? Is AB another victim of the NFL’s exploitative and dehumanizing protocols, or is he a loose cannon who has finally been brought to justice with the current sexual abuse investigation? Is he both? And perhaps the more chilling question: who’s next?

There is no Green Book for Walking

-By Dr. Jennifer Roberts

Dr. Roberts is an assistant professor in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and Director of the Public Health Outcomes and Effects of the Built Environment (PHOEBE) Laboratory

*An earlier version of this op-ed was published on Contexts; it has been republished here with permission from the author.

Why do African-Americans still need to cautiously navigate as pedestrians?

Late last year, the movie “Green Book,” starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen was released. This true story, which received three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Ali, was about Tony Lip (Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer in the early 1960s, being hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American jazz pianist, on his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South using The Negro Motorist Green Book, or simply the Green Book. For many movie viewers, this was the first introduction to the Green Book, a well-known guide for African-American travelers to find motels, restaurants, and fuel stations that would serve them during this highly segregated Jim Crow Laws era of U.S. history.

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Cover of the 1940 edition; Scan of cover (New York Public Library copy)

Initially, the Green Book was published in 1936 solely as a local booklet for New York City, but the response swelled the need to create a national issue covering the entire country. Originated and published by Victor Hugo Green, the publication was released annually from 1936 to 1966. In an effort to avoid public transportation segregation practices, African-American commuters, who could afford the purchase of an automobile, began driving “in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult.” As such, automobile ownership for the African-American community was the seminal gesture of independence, which bestowed civility and humanity, basic human rights that were otherwise legally and violently denied. Unfortunately, the reach for these social and political freedoms was not without calamity. During this period, African-American motorists endured hardships, such as being refused hotel or restaurant accommodations, expulsion from sundown towns, and threats of physical violence and death through beatings and lynchings. Green and others believed that the Green Book was a remedy to these “difficulties,” as he intended for this resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” Yet, even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, legislation to outlaw racial discrimination, these “difficulties” did not cease even though the Green Book discontinued publication and fell into obscurity.

Photo: Phil Dolby, https://flic.kr/p/FXfXyN

“Driving While Black,” a double entendre borrowed from the U.S, criminal offense of “driving while intoxicated,” represents the racial profiling endured by many African-American motorists by law enforcement. While the phrase rose to prominence during the 1990s, with racial profiling cases such as New Jersey v. Soto and Whren v. United States, it has been expanded to include other modes of difficult travel for African-Americans, including “Walking While Black” or “Biking While Black.” The “Walking While Black” expression can be traced back to a 1999 New York Times article stating that “his [Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani] numbers, however accurate, cannot reflect the anger felt by people stopped and frisked by the police each day only because they are W.W.B.—Walking While Black.” Even though the original meaning of “Walking While Black” referenced the discriminatory targeting of African-American pedestrians by the New York City Police Department, most recently another nuance to the expression has been recognized. In the U.S., African-Americans and other people of color are disproportionately affected by pedestrian injuries and deaths. This year, the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, published “Dangerous by Design” and reported that from 2008 to 2017 African-American pedestrians were 50% more likely to have been hit and killed by a driver when compared to White pedestrians. A statistic with this kind of variability warrants an acknowledgement of the racial bias influence on driver yielding behaviors when African-American pedestrians are present. In fact, two recent studies have examined and explored this form of implicit prejudice. Tara Goddard, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, conducted the first study ever on driver racial bias in downtown Portland, Oregon. In a controlled field experiment, six trained male participants (3 White and 3 African-American) simulated crossing at unsignalized midblock marked crosswalks while trained researchers recorded the number of cars that passed and the time until a driver yielded. Findings revealed that the African-American pedestrians were passed by motorists twice as many times and experienced wait periods that were 32% longer than White pedestrians. Similarly, another study out of Las Vegas led byCourtney Coughenour, an assistant professor at University of Nevada, examined similar driver yielding behaviors, but used two female participants (1 White and 1 African-American) at crosswalks on multilane roads in low-income and high-income neighborhoods. Again trained researchers cataloged more cars passing through the crosswalks while the African-American pedestrian was in the roadway compared to the White pedestrian within the high-income neighborhood. Both studies demonstrated that African-American pedestrians experience discriminatory treatment by drivers at crosswalks, which could result in fatal consequences. Although research has yet to explore the “Biking While Black” matter, Equitable Cities LLC issued a report last year on the pedalcyclist crashes in South Carolina from 2009 to 2017. It was determined that nearly 40% of the bicycle crashes involved African-American bicyclists even though this demographic makes up only 27% of the population. Furthermore, African-American South Carolinians were more than 1.5 times likely to be a victim of a bike crash than White South Carolinians. Interestingly, the “Biking While Black” expression also pivots back to the initial racial profiling signification. In cities throughout the U.S., such as Chicago, Tampa and Oakland, African-American bicyclists have been shown to be unfairly targeted and ticketed by police departments. For example, statistical analysis of Chicago Police Department data found that more than twice as many bicycle-related citations were written in African-American neighborhoods when compared to White communities.

Photo: Ryan McGuire, https://flic.kr/p/nA3m7M

In May 2018, Sherell Lewis Jr., an African-American man, was removing debris from the middle of Highway 171, roughly an hour outside of Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he was struck and killed by a pick-up truck driven by Matthew Martin. The devastation of this deadly incident was overshadowed by a slew of racist and incendiary remarks on social media by the driver, a White man who was quoted as saying he “hit some n-gger on the highway.” Even though this tragedy may seem like an extreme “Walking While Black” example, it is one that cannot be ignored when researchers and public health advocates promote active transportation initiatives. Active transportation is defined as walking, cycling or other non-motorized modes of human-powered transport as a means of travel. While active transportation can be used as a very simple and inexpensive strategy to address the physical inactivity and overweight/obesity public health issues affecting over 65% of the U.S. population, there is an inherent level of privilege with being able to freely walk and cycle in certain spaces without being subjected to discrimination, microaggression, violence and death. Unfortunately, this privilege is not and has not been extended to many African-American active transporters, such as, Sherell Lewis Jr., Amir Brooks, Charles Goodridge, Jordan Baker and Treyvon Martin. For some, a fundamental paradox exists between the public health benefits of active transportation and the potential negative consequences of a simple walk to the store or a bike ride to work. Nearly, 80 years ago when the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book was published, it served as a temporary solution to wade through a profoundly stained period of U.S. history. Today, there is no Green Book for motorists, but there is also no Green Book for walking or for any other non-motorized mode of transport, despite the apparent need for many African-American travelers. More importantly, the unfortunate question remains as to why this need still persists in the U.S., a country claiming a “post-racial era” status.

Discrimination to Protect Discrimination: The CAS’s Decision on Semenya & ASA vs. IAAF

– By Anna Posbergh

Anna is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A year ago, I wrote about the concerns regarding the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) newest policy on testosterone regulation and the science “supporting” their policy. In this piece, I critiqued the IAAF’s proposed policy around testosterone regulation of athletes with higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone. Specifically, I focused on the discriminatory nature of this policy and failure of the science behind it to corroborate the IAAF’s assertion that endogenous testosterone unfairly benefits female athletes.

Since then, three scientists have published a peer-reviewed article, further detailing the violation of scientific validity in this study. Yet, on Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the IAAF’s 2018 policy, stating that the IAAF’s testosterone regulation was a “necessary, reasonable, and proportionate means of achieving the legitimate objective of ensuring fair competition in female athletics in certain events and protecting the ‘protected class’ of female athletes in those events.” It is now set to go into effect on May 8, requiring all female athletes with higher levels of testosterone competing in events with lengths between the 400m and the mile, to suppress their endogenous hormonal levels through hormonal contraceptives.

This ruling is highly concerning, and several organizations have already spoken out against this ruling, from the UN Human Council to the World Medical Association. And for good reason. Between violating medical ethics, impinging on human rights, and failing to uphold scientific integrity, there is not much reason to support or even like this new policy. As Dr. Katrina Karkazis and Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young point out in their New York Times op-ed, the IAAF has “already caused immense harm by reinforcing outdated and misguided ideas about testosterone,” particularly the idea that testosterone causes performative success. This is not true, and is outlined in the very study on which this policy is based. In several cases, female athletes with lower/the lowest levels of testosterone ran faster, jumped higher, and threw farther than female athletes with higher/the highest levels of testosterone. Madeleine Pape at the University of Wisconsin-Madison further reiterates this point: using testosterone as the end-all-be-all for sex segregation substantiates myths around this hormone and validates discrimination as a means of “protecting female athletes.”

The word “discrimination,” appears in the CAS executive summary. Specifically, in literally labeling this policy as “discriminatory,” they state:

The Panel unanimously concludes that the [Differences of Sex Development (DSD)] Regulations are prima facie discriminatory since they impose differential treatment based on protected characteristics. In particular, since the DSD Regulations establish restrictions that are targeted at a subset of the female/intersex athlete population, and do not impose any equivalent restrictions on male athletes, it follows that the Regulations are prima facie discriminatory on grounds of legal sex. Similarly, the DSD Regulations create restrictions that are targeted at a group of individuals who have certain immutable biological characteristics (namely a 46 XY DSD coupled with a material androgenising effect arising from that condition), and which do not apply to individuals who do not have those characteristics. It follows that the Regulations are also prima facie discriminatory on grounds of innate biological characteristics.

Hence, across the board, the three-person CAS panel (Dr. Annabelle Bennett, Australia; Honorable Hugh L. Fraser, Canada; and Dr. Hans Nater, Switzerland: all white judges) labeled the policy as discriminatory. Between the differential treatment of athletes with DSD, lack of imposed regulation on male athletes, and the naturally occurring nature of this testosterone level, the CAS unanimously deemed this policy as discrimination. However, a majority of the panel (two of the three) deemed this discrimination necessary on the premise of “fair play.”

Let’s be real now: “fair play” does not exist.

“Fair play” is impossible to achieve in sport. Cheryl Cooky and Shari Dworkin wrote on this very concept in 2013, explaining:

Sport studies scholars have noted the ways in which sport is not a level playing field; rather, it is a site wherein broader forms of social inequality are accepted, tolerated, and ignored. The historic and contemporary structure and culture of sport institutions often reproduces hegemonic masculinity, racism, classism, gender inequalities, and nationalism…In Western societies, sporting institutions have been organizationally structured to benefit the interests of dominant groups (i.e., White, male, economically affluent) (p. 107)

Considering the income and socioeconomic status disparity between athletes, access to resources, racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, colonialism, and transphobia, “fair” simply does not exist in the world of sport. To assume otherwise is to erase the lived experiences of athletes of color, trans athletes, gay athletes, working class athletes, and athletes from the global South, and to ignore the incredibly iniquitous history of sport. Additionally, when we consider the different framing of “genetic advantages” between male and female athletes, “fairness” becomes further obfuscated.

Caster Semenya’s existence and success in sport is at the epicenter of these systemic oppressions. Her black muscular body and identities as a black queer female athlete from the global South, disrupt the dominant female body (white, feminine, from the global North) that the IAAF attempts to privilege. The CAS’s decision is a disaster for sports law, decolonial and postcolonial scholars, feminists, critical race scholars, body theorists, and queer scholars alike, considering the power dynamics between the CAS decision and Semenya (three white judges from the global North deciding her fate), lack of scientific integrity behind the original 2017 study, and discriminatory nature of the policy. In a six-page document, the CAS decision reifies the myths and problematics fueling the IAAF policy that scholars from these fields have spent decades attempting to deconstruct. Moreover, the issues around this policy bridge the positivist and constructivist, quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective, realms when considering the faulty science behind these regulations. Even the World Medical Association raised concerns, releasing a statement last week:

It is in general considered as unethical for physicians to prescribe treatment for excessive endogenous testosterone if the condition is not recognized as pathological. The WMA calls on physicians to oppose and refuse to perform any test or administer any treatment or medicine which is not in accordance with medical ethics, and which might be harmful to the athlete using it, especially to artificially modifying blood constituents, biochemistry or endogenous testosterone.

Requiring the use of hormonal contraceptives to reach an intended hormonal level, without regard for the side effects on an athlete (especially when those contraceptives have not thoroughly been tested) is a violation of medical ethics. Temporarily ignoring the socio-cultural implications of the IAAF policy, the regulations have the potential to inflict irreversible physical damage on the athletes affected by this policy. Re-factoring in the ethical and historical contexts of this policy, leaves little to support the IAAF’s policy and the CAS’s decision.

Thus, even a year later, we can conclusively state that this policy is, and continues to be, an abomination.

 

Thank you to Dr. Sam Clevenger and Brandon Wallace for their insightful feedback and edits on earlier drafts.

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Brandon Wallace?

– By Brandon Wallace

Brandon is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The news article probably would’ve been written something like this.

“On Thursday, 23-year-old College Park resident Brandon Wallace was fatally shot by local police officers after entering the police station armed with a deadly weapon. According to authorities, Wallace rushed into the police station wielding a 10-inch knife with intent to kill. A local police officer, who has asked to remain anonymous at this time, saw the knife in Wallace’s hands immediately after Wallace entered the station. The officer shot Wallace 11 times, killing him on the spot. The officer claims that he feared for his life and the lives of his fellow officers. The police administration has stated that the officer’s actions followed protocol and were justified. An investigation into the incident is pending…”

——–

In his 1903 American classic The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois writes about the “double consciousness” of African-Americans, referring the sense of always having to reconcile two conflicting identities. One of these identities matches our common conceptualization; basically, how one perceives themselves in relation to their world. However, DuBois argued that African-Americans must harbor a second identity that is based upon a constant awareness of how others perceive their everyday actions and behaviors. Essentially, the African-American must constantly see him/herself through the eyes of those who have ideological and material power over the fate of their bodies (Coates, 2015). DuBois wrote about this in the heart of Jim Crow, an era of racial segregation, state-sanctioned and extrajudicial lynching, and ubiquitous second-class citizenship for African-Americans. Despite incremental gains from civil rights movements, double consciousness is still a reality for many African-Americans in what Michelle Alexander (2011) and others call ‘the New Jim Crow’ of the 21st century: mass incarceration and the racially-inequitable criminal justice system.

I could spend the rest of this essay listing facts and statistics about the racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system. However, I believe percentages, ratios, and bar graphs do not always accurately portray the magnitude of the issue. Sometimes, it takes a personal experience, like one I recently had, to evoke even close to the level of emotions that this issue evokes in its victims – and remind the 21st century African-American of their double consciousness in the “age of colorblindness” (Bonilla-Silva, 2014).

Every week, I am in charge of a group of local 5th-8th graders for a ‘Sports and Fitness’ class in which we go outside, do a short fitness workout, and play some sort of physically-active game. On the way to the field where the class is held, we walk in front of the local police station. Last week, when walking to our field, a few of my students called out to me, “Mr. Wallace, we found something weird!” I walked over to see them huddled around a large knife in the front lawn of the police station. It was about 10 inches with a dirty blade from who-knows-what. The immediate proximity to the police station was suspicious, and the fact that my students almost stepped on it on our way to the park made it an object of danger. It obviously needed to be removed. I knew the responsible thing to do was to give the knife to the police officers and let them know that I found it in the front lawn of the station. Whether or not the knife would be of interest to the police, I needed to at least set a good example for my students.

I told my students continue on to the field and begin their warmup, and that I would be there shortly. I picked up the knife with a nearby leaf (wherever this knife had been or whatever it had done, I knew I did not want my fingerprints on it). With an eye on my students, my hood over my head to block the chilly wind, and a sense of civic pride, I marched to the police station with the knife.

I nonchalantly walked through the doors of the police station. It was not until I saw the eyes of the front desk clerk locked on the knife and the sheer terror on her face that I realized the situation. “What the hell am I doing?” I thought to myself, “I’m a 23-year-old black man bringing a huge knife into a police station. Literally with my hood up!”

My heart began to race while adrenaline and worry rushed through my body. The clerk grabbed intercom and called some sort of code throughout the police station speakers. I quickly took my hood off, raised my hand above my head, and tried to hold the knife as non-threateningly as I could with my other hand. “No no no!” I screamed, “I found this outside!” I put the knife on the desk and raised that hand above my head as well. Luckily, the clerk believed me. She gave an “All clear” through the intercom. Still, I expected some officers to come around the corner with guns drawn at me. Instead, one officer calmly came to the front desk to assess the situation. Somewhat deliriously, I explained to the officer and clerk that my students had found the knife on the front lawn and I just wanted to turn it in. I frantically apologized for the optics of the situation. They thanked me, asked me a few more questions about the knife, and sent me on my way. As I joined my students at the field, I made sure to put on my most stoic and emotionless performance for the rest of the class.

——-

Had a few variables of my situation been different, or if I had just been unlucky, the above news article may have been written about me. I was the wrong person trying to do the right thing at the wrong place at the wrong time. If an officer had seen me entering and was a little too trigger-happy, this story could have been told from their point of view. I could have been considered armed and dangerous. My physical appearance could have been described as menacing. They could have speculated freely about my intent. They could have discovered my various social media posts about #BlackLivesMatter and labelled me as a domestic terrorist. A national debate could have arisen about my past, my future, and whether I was deserving or undeserving of my fate. My mother could have lost her son, my fiancé could have lost her future husband, and my body could have been taken as a justified sacrifice to protect a body whose possession of a badge delineates it as more valuable.

Had my case even gone to a trial, the circumstances of it probably would have made it relatively ‘open-and-shut’ in favor of the officer when considering other recent police brutality trials. So many black lives have been taken for so much less than the circumstances of my situation. Even for those whose killing at the hands of police officers have been deemed ‘justified’ by the legal system or the court public opinion, who knows the extent to which their stories would have been different if they had lived to tell it. Thankfully, Brandon Wallace was not added to the long list of victims of the New Jim Crow. But as this situation has reminded me, the unfortunate reality of double consciousness is just as necessary in 2018 as it has been throughout our bloody history.

 

References:

Alexander, M. (2011). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Revised edition / ed.). New York: New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in america (Fourth ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Du Bois, W. (2013[1903]). The souls of black folk. Oakland, Calif.: Eucalyptus Press.

A Sporting Embodiment: Black Women Run Too

-By Tori Thompson

Tori Thompson is currently a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park. Her work involving race and obesity was recently presented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport 2018 in Vancouver, Canada, where she also received the Gary Sailes Graduate Diversity Scholarship.

Email: torialex@umd.edu

Twitter: @Planet_PCS

 

Why do they always look at me like that?”

That’s what I think when I consistently see the same white men and women on the running trail in my neighborhood. My boyfriend and I recently moved to this neighborhood, motivated in part by the vast amount of running trails in the area. Granted, I see more people using the trails to walk their dogs in the morning, but I don’t mind the dogs. What I do mind are the constantly surveilling eyes that watch me as I jog over the bridge. I cannot help but think that their gaze is a response to both my being black and running on the trail. My blackness may be disrupting their racially homogenous space, and my activity may seem odd…or suspicious.

“Good morning” they say. “Mornin’,” is my response as I pull my Nike visor down over my eyes and continue to run up the next hill. I sense that they are displeased with my short and staunch response. I guess they are accustomed  to people stopping and chatting, but I do not have the time. My brisk pace is necessary in order to to make it home in time to resume writing my thesis and doing laundry. As I run past the white couple with the dog, I feel the need to turn down my music—to the point where I am no longer able to make out the lyrics—so that I can hear if someone is coming up behind me. Unintentionally, my fist clenches and I find myself thinking of ways to take down men who are bigger than me. As sweat rolls down my arms I feel my biceps begin to swell and my nose flare. I must be angry.

I run down the hill and see a black woman about my age, jogging with her phone in one hand and water bottle in another. The items seem to constrain her range of motion and prohibit her from achieving proper running form—she appears to be struggling. Subconsciously, I turn up the volume on my iPod and start to keep pace with the rhythm of my favorite workout song. My feet begin to mimic the bass. Boom, boom, clap. Boom, boom, clap. I competitively quicken my pace and obtain ideal running form as I run past the black woman. I make sure that my chest is high and elbows are in—I even begin to sing the lyrics. Ironically, the lyrics are “lemme show you how it’s done,” which I sing loudly and proudly as I breeze past the other black woman. I sense her gaze, but unlike the white couple, it does not anger me. Her gaze makes me want to work harder. Her gaze makes me unclench my fist and snap to the beat of my music instead. And most importantly, it makes me run faster and not think about any muscular pain that I begin to acquire in response to my quickening pace.

“Okay T, hustle up,” I tell myself as I approach the last hill of the 3.1 mile trail. Seeing nobody, and I began to ease up and regain control of my breathing. My lungs fail to keep up with the fluctuation of emotions that accompany me on this morning’s run. I even feel a little light-headed, but I knew I could not stop until I made it up that last hill. A slower song comes on, and again, my feet mimic the bass to the new song, which involves seeing the police behind you and still refusing to stop. I feel obligated to keep my pace even though my lower back begins to throb. The last hill is always the worst. Despite the sweat was dripping onto my eyes and my form breaking down, I could not stop. I was watching me.

“I ain’t gonna stop” were the lyrics that played as I successfully finished my morning run.

***

It is not uncommon to read embodied narratives about athletic failure and triumph. Sporting narratives often promote a ‘healthist’ narrative, focusing on individual responsibility and success, and often aligning with the dominant ideology that a sporting body is also a disciplined and civil body. However, the language used in this embodied narrative does not demonstrate disciplined and civil connotations, nor does the language promote the same ‘values’ as other autobiographical narratives that are focused on physical activity (Allen-Collinson and Otwon, 2014). This may be due to the racial underpinnings of the narrative.

The purpose of this embodied narrative is to disrupt the dominant belief that black women do not exercise, or in this case, run. This belief may stem from the continuously promoted statistic: 60% of black women are obese (Foley et al., 2012). This statistic is an essential generator of obesity discourse, which often situates black women as being unable to engage in physical activity due to lack of time, resources, and motivation (Rubin, Fitts, and Becker, 2003). This narrative gives a different “meaning to being black, female, and physically active as it situates the black female body in an ‘abnormal’ space. Leach (2012) states, “what we really think about bodies that differ from the norm is important because our beliefs about normal embodiment become normative” (p. 140).  What is considered a ‘normal’ practice becomes embodied within society, and bodies that do not succumb to what is ‘normal’ are considered anomalies (Leach, 2012). However, both normal and abnormal bodies, generate social meanings (Allen-Collinson and Otwon, 2014), and impact the individual’s identity, therefore warranting a need for more investigations into the embodied consciousness of the physically active black female as black female obesity rates continue to rise.

 

 

References

Allen-Collinson, J. & Owton, H. (2014). Intense embodiment: Senses of heat in women’s running and boxing. Body & Society, 1-24; DOI: 10.1177/1357034X14538849

Blackman, L. (2008). The body : The key concepts (English ed., The key concepts, 1747-6550). Oxford: Berg.

Foley, P., Levine, E., Askew, S., Puleo, E., Whiteley, J., Batch, B., Heil, D., e al. (2012). Weight gain prevention among black women in the rural community health center setting: the Shape program. BMC public health, 12(1), 305. Doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-305

Leach Scully, J. (2012). Disability and the thinking body. In S. Gonzalez-Arnal, G. Jagger, G., and K. Lennon (Eds.), Embodied selves (pp. 139-159). London, GB: Palgrave Macmillan

Rubin, L., Fitts, M., & Becker, A. (2003). “Whatever feels good in my soul”: Body ethics and aesthetics among african american and latina women. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry : An International Journal of Comparative Cross-Cultural Research,27(1), 49-75. doi:10.1023/A:1023679821086

‘Abomination;’ as in, “the new IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism is an abomination”

– By Anna Posbergh

Anna is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Over the past six months, I have been reading, researching, and writing about hyperandrogenism as it concerns sport and intersex athletes. And let me tell you, it has been an experience. The more I read, the more my own understandings of sex, gender, and sport become blurred and unclear. From Stella Walsh and Heinrich Ratjen in the 1936 Olympics, to the most recent ‘controversy’ around Dutee Chand, I am increasingly horrified, shocked, and fired up by everything I read and stumble across. For example, did you know that in early gender-verification tests, women were essentially forced to stand naked in a group and undergo a public gynecological exam? So basically, a woman’s “femininity” or “female status” was dictated by her external genitalia.

This degrading “verification” practice was short-lived, though, and one might think that it was because people found it to be a horrifying, discriminatory, and exploitative practice. You would be wrong. While the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) admitted the ethical issues around this crude testing protocol, they deemed these tests ‘inadequate,’ and slightly shifted the policy so that all female athletes instead, “paraded past three female gynecologists.” The gynecologists verified whether or not the athletes were female, thus eliciting the informal title of ‘nude parades.’ Ultimately, the practice of mandatory sex testing on female athletes continued until 1991 for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and 1999 for the IAAF.

Certainly, these issues come back to the representation and portrayal of women in sport and female athletes. Title IX was considered an important breakthrough for women’s sport forty years ago, but today we are still seeing strong evidence of discriminatory sex segregation in sport, with this ongoing hyperandrogenism ‘fiasco’ just one of countless attempts to temper women’s sports and police the boundaries between men and women.

Continue reading “‘Abomination;’ as in, “the new IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism is an abomination””

The NBA’s Tough-on-Crime Moment

– By Brandon Wallace

Brandon is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While the divide between players and executives in the National Football League (NFL) has rightfully dominated media sporting discourse over the last couple of years, a similar dilemma is quietly emerging in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – although for a different reason. One of the most prominent stories of the first half of the NBA season has been the seemingly deteriorating relationship between players and referees. Players have expressed frustration with the referees for increasingly showing disrespect to players on the court and having a ‘quick trigger’ when doling out technical fouls, ejections, and flagrant fouls (fouls that refs deem unnecessary, excessive, un-basketball-like, or violent, which amount to player fines). This is not a problem exclusive to rank-and-file players; the stars have arguably been hit the hardest. Big names such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and others have all been ejected this season for transgressions that most agree did not warrant punishment that excessive. Referees, on the other hand, have voiced their frustration concerning players criticizing them on the court, sensing what they perceive to be a fleeting level of authority.

Continue reading “The NBA’s Tough-on-Crime Moment”

The McDonaldization of Racial Profiling in the Police Force

– By Tori Thompson

Tori is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Racial profiling in police forces is a systemic national problem. Even though the United States Constitution states that “all men are created equal” and prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, state police departments continue to abuse the law for the ‘betterment of society’. Looking through the lens of sociologist George Ritzer’s Weberian concept of “McDonaldization,” I argue that racial profiling has become McDonaldized in American police culture. McDonaldization is “the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world” (Ritzer, 2004). The principles of the fast food industry Ritzer refers to are efficiency, calculability, rationality and predictability. Currently, we can see the prevalence of these principles in American police protocol via racial profiling. This post argues that racial profiling has become a rationalized system of national crime fighting standards and illustrates how the principles of McDonaldization influence the marginalization of people of color.

Continue reading “The McDonaldization of Racial Profiling in the Police Force”