Protection for whom? A critical examination into the governance of women athletes through policies

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Posbergh, Anna
Jette, Shannon L
Women’s sport remains a contested realm that frequently features standards and regulations implying women are “lesser than,” “different from,” or “derivative of” men (Cahn, 2015, p. 222). As such, a range of protective policies have been introduced as techniques to ensure the safety and health of women, defend “fair competition” in women’s sport, and/or prevent women from violating social and medical boundaries that identify them as women. However, because protective policies rely on divergent rationales in their creation and justification, they elicit different impacts for individuals who are categorized (or wish to be categorized) as women. Previous scholarship has analyzed the underlying issues of science, race, gender, and nationality in individual protective policies and indicated the potential for specific policies (i.e., female eligibility policies) to elicit dangerous health, social, and mental consequences on black and brown women from the Global South. However, there a paucity of research that investigates protective policies as a broad category to understand their similarities, differences, and nuances. To fill this gap, I examine multiple protective policies to conduct a critical, qualitative inquiry into how protective policies are created in elite women’s sports. I focus on how such policies regulate women’s bodies and how different versions of “woman” are constructed by interpreting and selectively drawing from myriad forms of evidence to determine who is protected (and who is excluded), how “protection” is understood, what evidence is mobilized, and how protective policy consequences are justified.I investigate three policies as case studies: the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) 2014 consensus statement on relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), World Athletics’ 2019 policy on female eligibility, and World Athletics’ 2019 policy on transgender eligibility. These three policies are selected for analysis because they reflect the range of science-supported protective policies. While all seek to protect women, each adopts a different stance on the importance of sex differences, in the process demonstrating the social construction of “sex” and malleability of scientific evidence. Guided by feminist, critical race, and Foucauldian-inspired governmentality studies approaches, I center the relevant discourses, knowledges, and power relations within policy rationales to better understand how protective policies regulate (women’s) bodies and maintain social norms. Each case study analysis consists of two data sets: the actual policy texts and nine semi-structured interviews with policy authors, scientists, and other relevant administrators involved in the creation, drafting, and implementation of the three policies. I analyze the data through thematic analysis followed by Foucauldian discourse analysis, informed by a governmentality studies perspective. Using this two-step analytic framework, I first determine what was said in document texts and by participants, followed by a deeper level of analysis and contextualization of how dominant discourses, knowledges, and power relations were created and mobilized to protect (some) women athletes. My findings are organized into four empirical chapters. In the first empirical chapter, I examine the document texts to provide a broad examination into the contexts surrounding their creation, as well as the unproblematized logics that inform their dominant discourses, ways of knowing, and power hierarchies. Based on my analysis, I bring to light the implications of the logics underpinning the documents, including the use of elite medical discourses, the construction of “suspicious” athletes, biologizations of race and gender, and individual diagnoses that lack attention to broader social, political, and cultural dimensions. In the second empirical chapter, I focus on the interviews, or “expert knowledge,” with those involved with researching, drafting, and implementing the three case studies to understand how they draw from (certain) forms of evidence, interpret and/or circulate dominant discourses and knowledges, and navigate the (often) contentious process of creating protective policies (see Wells, 2020). In the third and fourth empirical chapters, I examine both sets of data (policy and interview). In the first of these two empirical chapters, I provide an overview of the “start-to-finish” process behind creating and implementing protective policies and investigate the “tensions” that emerge at each step in the process: from explaining why protective policies exist, to finding or constructing appropriate forms of evidence, to determining the necessity of a separate women’s category, to methods of governing. In the latter empirical chapter, I more closely parse through these “tensions” behind and within the rationales and strategies of protective policies to reveal the complexity reality of such documents, particularly with consideration to (protected) participation, (controlled) unfairness, and (felt) policy implementation. This dissertation is significant as it elucidates how, if, and when women’s rights and bodies are protected through policies. As sport shapes and is shaped by society, this research illuminates on a societal scale how science and policy shape dominant ways of knowing, particularly regarding gender, sex, race, and human rights. Especially in a time when legal protections of women’s autonomy, bodies, and rights are in question, this project provides insight into how protective policies enact a range of measures to safeguard (some) women’s bodies through regulation, discipline, or even exclusion. By investigating how sociocultural and scientific knowledges intersect to determine who qualifies as “woman,” who is considered in need of “protection,” and how protection is implemented, the findings from this dissertation will hopefully inform organizational and administrative efforts to create more equitable, compassionate, and inclusive policies, both in sport and society.