How Should Sports Be Categorized?

Generally speaking, sports have been categorized by both gender and ability. There are separate divisions for men and women in just about every sport imaginable, and athletes are obviously separated by ability – i.e. professional leagues compared to minor leagues and semi-professional leagues. However, there are some fine lines when it comes to defining sports and their categories. In some instances, boundaries are not quite as set as they might have seemed to be. An example would be that of the dilemma of the 1999 New York City Marathon discussed in Mika LaVaque-Manty’s The Playing Fields of Eton. Another example would be that of Caster Semenya, a female athlete who had her gender called into question.

Semenya (front) had her gender question and was almost not allowed to compete alongside females

Semenya (front) had her gender question and was almost not allowed to compete alongside females

Regarding the New York City Marathon, the issue at hand was that wheelchair athletes were being deliberately slowed down or stopped so that able-bodied runners could pass. The New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC), which is in charge of the marathon, stated that this was due to the overall safety of all able-bodied runners and wheelchair athletes. Wheelchair athletes claimed discrimination, won their case, and were allotted their own, individual race for the next year’s marathon. This deals with categories of sports and raises the overarching question: why not just let wheelchair athletes compete in the actual marathon?


Disabled athletes and their role within sporting competitions is a much-debated topic, and one with no clear-cut answer. In a recent discussion section, our class was asked to take positions regarding the question of whether or not wheelchair athletes should be able to compete in regular marathons. Many agreed that they should be able to, while some disagreed. Those in favor tended to take an anti-discrimination stand, while those against cited safety issues for all parties involved. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides, and that is what makes this topic such a difficult one to make a firm decision on.

Looking at a different aspect of categorization within sports, the case of Caster Semenya is an interesting one. Semenya is a South African female athlete who has won many awards on a global scale. After some time, people began to question whether Semenya was in fact a female. Gender tests were taken, and while Semenya does have female genitalia, it was revealed that she also has testes that never actually descended and no uterus or ovaries. Many claimed that these test results proved that she had an advantage over other female competitors and should not be allowed to compete in races. Many opposed that claim, and a great debate broke out. Unfortunately for Semenya, a product of this was a complete and total invasion of privacy. The case was settled in Semenya’s favor, but really had no winner.

What these examples have shown is that the question of how sports should be categorized is a very difficult and controversial one. To me, the best way to categorize sports is in whichever way makes them the most fair. That means that sports should obviously be organized by level of ability. It makes it the most fair for the athletes and more entertaining for spectators. No one wants to see the United States’ track team take on a high-school track team, and no high-school track team wants to take on the United States’ track team. Now, it comes down to how to sort out abilities. The gender separation within sports works well because of the fact that males are going to have an advantage athletically due to genetics. The same statement can be made regarding able-bodied athletes and disable athletes. The able-bodied athletes will have the advantage, so it makes sense that they should be in a separate league. However, there can be certain cases where a female can compete with males or where a disabled person can compete with able-bodied people. An example would be that of Oscar Pistorius, a disabled athlete who competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. While Pistorius might have fallen hard from his almost heroic standing with his personal life matters, his case regarding athletics is still pretty remarkable.

Pistorius competing with able-bodied runners despite his prosthetic legs

Pistorius competed with able-bodied runners despite his prosthetic legs

A more-pressing issue regarding categories within sports is one that would be similar to Semenya’s. What if someone in a lower-abilities league was questioned on what league they truly belonged in? I believe a stance similar to the guilty-until-proven-innocent one should be taken. Until there is firm evidence that someone does not belong in a league (i.e. if Semenya had been proven to actually be a male), they should be able to compete where they are.

Overall, while the way sports are organized now makes it look like a simple process, there are actually many factors that are still up in the air. Sports should be categorized on ability, and it all comes down to figuring out the specifics once that fact is determined.