Why Can't Men Compete In Races For Women?

by Conor Clarke

If you're sick of hearing about Nazis and death panels and health care, here's something else entirely: A piece in the New York Times about a championship runner whose accomplishments are being challenged because she might not qualify as a woman. Really. You might wonder, as I did, why there's uncertainty here. When the clothes come off, it's either there or it isn't, eh? Nope. I encourage you to read the whole piece.

But there is one general point to make about this kind of story, and I think it's an important one. If it turns out that the young woman has a muddily advantageous genetic composition, we would all consider it "unfair" to the other young women against whom she competes. After all, the outcome of a competition like running is supposed to be determined by training and grit, not the utterly arbitrarily presence of an extra gene.

And yet that intuition is impossible to extend. We are all born with talents that are equally arbitrary -- strength and intelligence and social grace -- and yet we all compete for prizes under the impression that the outcomes are fair. Perhaps something called free will enters the picture at some point. And perhaps not: The ability to work hard might be doled out just as arbitrarily at a Y Chromosome or a great voice. I don't know how you'd prove it either way.

Anyway, the cynical conclusion here is that there's nothing inherently just or fair about these outcomes. The idea of life as a meritocracy seems awfully nice, but it's undermined before the race even starts.