Most athletes will tell you, that sport and the ability to compete is a gift for many reasons. Apart from offering you the opportunity to live out your dreams on the world’s greatest stages, sport also affords you the gift of personal growth through knowledge and experience.
Travelling the world and experiencing so many different cultures and people, opens your eyes to realities you would not have otherwise seen and forces you to reassess your beliefs, no matter how deeply rooted they seem.
Olympic middle-distance runner Dr. Madeleine Pape is one athlete whose sporting journey took her on a personal pilgrimage.
After a career-ending injury, her beliefs were challenged, and her views were changed, leading her down a path she became fiercely passionate about.
Pape’s journey began in the rural town of Emerald in Victoria.
She was an active child who enjoyed sport, but athletics wasn’t an option at the time, so she had to get creative with who, or what, she utilised as a competitor.
“I grew up in Emerald, in the Dandenongs on the eastern edge of Melbourne and I’d always loved running, but athletics wasn’t available as a sport,” Pape said.
“Emerald was known for Puffing Billy, the old steam train that would come through the town and every time it would come past the school grounds, I would try and race it.
“I spent a lot of my time at school racing the boys as well and was definitely aware early on that running was my passion and my strong point when it came to sport.”
Pape and her family moved to the suburbs when she was in high school, which offered her the opportunity to join an athletics club and pursue her passion properly.
She teamed up with her first coach, Terry McGrath, who later guided her to an Olympic debut at Beijing 2008, but Olympic glory wasn’t always the goal for Pape.
Initially, she was juggling between pursuing boundary umpiring for Aussie Rules football and a career in track and field.
It wasn’t until watching the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games and seeing some of her local athletes compete for Australia, that she decided she wanted to focus solely on running.
“I’d always been fascinated by the Olympic Games. I remember watching Cathy Freeman at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 and being really inspired, but at the time I was tossing up between pursuing boundary running or a career in elite-level track and field,” she explained.
“There was a big opportunity to do something different and get to levels that a woman never had in boundary running, which is something I was really passionate about.”
It wasn’t until Pape saw other women she had raced in the past reaching great heights, that she realised she could do it too.
“I was 20 or 21 when I made the decision to put all my efforts into athletics, and it was after the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. That had a really big influence on me,” she said.
“I was injured at the time and I remember sitting in the stands watching six-time Olympian and three-time world champion, Maria Mutola, racing in the women’s 800m.
“When I saw all the Australian representatives racing against her, I thought to myself, ‘I know these women, and some of them I’ve raced against for a long time,’ she continued.
“I felt like what they were doing wasn’t beyond me and that if I put my mind to it, I could get to the same level.”
Two years later, Pape came second to Tamsyn Lewis in the women’s 800 m event at the 2008 Sydney Athletics Grand Prix, setting a personal best time of 1:59.92 and booking her ticket for an Olympic debut at Beijing 2008.
Unfortunately, Pape missed out on advancing to the Olympic semi-finals, but the following year she won gold at the 2009 Summer Universiade in Belgrade, Serbia, before competing in a race that would be her most defining.
At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Pape came face-to-face with South African double Olympic Champion, Caster Semenya, who had recently found herself surrounded by controversy due to having naturally high levels of testosterone in her body.
During that time, many had begun to argue that the then 18-year-old had an unfair advantage.
Some experts further argued that to compete as a woman, Semenya should be subject to invasive gender testing, drugs and procedures to reduce her natural testosterone. Some athletes who have undergone these procedures now have lifelong side effects like osteoporosis, brittle bones and the early onset of menopause.
Semenya blitzed the competition by more than two seconds, sending officials and the media into a frenzy.
Pape, who was disappointed with her performance after not proceeding past the heats a few days earlier, was angry.
She joined others in believing that Semenya did have an unfair advantage and should not be able to compete alongside her and other women.
Not long after her race against Semenya, Pape began preparing for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, but ended up suffering a career-ending injury.
She badly damaged her Achilles tendon and underwent two surgeries which were both unsuccessful.
Pape said that what softened the blow of not making the semi-finals in Beijing 2008 and Berlin in 2009, was knowing that there would be another opportunity, but her injury robbed her of a chance at redemption.
Pape was unable to run or even jog for five years after her surgeries, but there was a silver lining.
Even though she was devastated that her athletic career had been ripped away, Pape’s injury gave her the time and space to reflect on her education.
Having been continually enrolled in university studies since she was 18 years old, she finally completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) with a major in Sociology at Monash University in 2011. Realizing that academia offered her the chance to build a new life overseas, she decided to pursue graduate studies.
Pape left Australia to embark on a Ph.D. in sociology in the United States after she was accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Her intention was to focus on environmental sociology, sustainability and climate change but quite serendipitously, she ended up following a different path.
“I stumbled across feminist theory and gender studies by chance, it was an area that was intuitively interesting to me because I did consider gender to be a dimension of my experiences in sport. But in Australia, I hadn’t really encountered feminist thinking or gender scholarship.
“I’d never been given the opportunity to engage with that seriously and find a language for talking about those sorts of issues,” she explained.
“I began to recognize that I was a feminist without realizing it, or without necessarily identifying that way as an athlete, so I started to shift my focus, first to sociology of gender and then more specifically to gender and sport.”
Pape’s studies led her to look back on her athletics career, in particular, her race against Semenya in 2009 and her feelings and beliefs at the time.
“During my studies, we read a book written by a feminist biologist called Anne Fausto-Sterling,” Pape said.
“It’s about the complexity of biological sex and how our ideas about sex as a strict binary have become reflected in science. Fausto-Sterling used the case of sport as her opening example.
“She explained how the actions of sports governing bodies in fact reveal the complexity of biological sex, even though their various interventions are aimed at trying to obscure it,” she continued.
“I realised that in 2009, when I competed against Caster Semenya, I had an opportunity to learn something, but back then I had no idea that there was this history of previous efforts to regulate who gets to compete as a female athlete.
“Back then, it was like the sport had a sort of collective amnesia or we just chose to forget about the history of these practices.
“Being confronted by alternative ways of thinking about biological sex in an academic setting was very challenging for me because I had some convictions that were very fundamental to my experience as an athlete.
“It was, and still is, important to me to hold onto both truths at once: to recognize that, yes, sex is complex, but somehow it still matters to our experiences as athletes,” Pape shared.
“For me, the middle way takes the form of developing a framework for asking critical questions about the scientific evidence that sports governing bodies rely on to regulate inclusion in the female athlete category, and to also ask hard questions about the fears and assumptions that underlie their rule-making efforts,” she continued.
“I think many athletes don’t reflect critically on the actions of sports governing bodies, nor think carefully about the faith we place in science, which we presume is operating objectively and is beyond reproach.
“But what was ultimately more important for me was to let go of the scientific dimension of this issue and to really think carefully about what the regulation of gender eligibility actually means in practice, for the women who are affected,” Pape explained.
“Not only in terms of having their identities questioned, and their lives turned upside down, but also in terms of the kinds of physical harms that have occurred as a result of these policies.
“This is something that we’re increasingly learning about, because there have been a number of women who have been brave enough to come forward and talk with organizations like Human Rights Watch about what their own experiences have been like.
“What has happened in terms of unnecessary and irreversible surgeries, with no medical aftercare, is horrifying.
“There are 25-year-old previously healthy women developing osteoporosis as a result of surgeries they didn’t need to have.
“And almost universally, it’s women of colour from Global South nations.
“To me, that is a huge problem for women’s sport and one we need to talk about rather than sweep under the rug,” she continued.
“It’s not good enough to say that these regulations are justified because they are based on ‘science’ and a certain notion of fairness and women’s sport. I don’t think ‘science’ should allow sports governing bodies, or us as sports stakeholders, to ignore all of the consequences and the harms that are perpetrated through these regulations.
“Getting beyond the science and trying to grapple with the human dimension of this was what ended up being most persuasive for me, in terms of forming my own point of view.”
Pape began to form friendships with women who had high testosterone, which forced her to ask herself, ‘Was I willing to recognise my friends as women outside of sport, yet deny them the right to compete alongside me?’
She realised that the answer was no, and by 2015 her views had evolved so dramatically that she testified in support of Indian athlete Dutee Chand, when she appealed against World Athletics’ (formerly the International Athletics Associations Federation) set of rules that rendered her ineligible to compete on the track as a woman, due to her naturally high testosterone.
Chand won this case and was able to continue competing.
In 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that for Caster Semenya to continue competing in women’s middle-distance events, she would have to comply with World Athletics’ Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification, meaning she would need to take medication or have surgery to lower her testosterone to no more than 5 nanomoles per litre of blood.
Semenya has appealed this decision, but to date has not been successful.
Pape was one of those disappointed by the decision against Semenya and has continued to state her support for the South African superstar.
Pape said that her research as a sociologist has also led her to recognize how gender inequality shaped her own experiences as an athlete.
“It’s funny. I have often thought about how when I was younger I just accepted that it wasn’t an option for me to think about a career as an Aussie Rules player.
“I never felt politically motivated to change that situation, there was just this kind of acceptance that it was just the way things were,” she shared.
“When I competed at Beijing 2008, women were given the opportunity to participate in the steeplechase for the very first time at the Olympics and at the time, the significance of that was lost on me.
“I didn’t appreciate what that meant in terms of the massive impact on developmental opportunities for women compared to men, who had been competing in the steeplechase for 80 years.
“There were other aspects that I was not really attuned to, like how women are vastly underrepresented in sports leadership. Or how women athletes often allow our bodies to be policed as far as our weight, our eating. Or what we think is okay in terms of the boundaries between an athlete and their coach or training partners or medical staff.
“There are a lot of gender-related issues that I have since become aware of, which have made me think differently and reflect on what I accepted as ‘normal’ when I was an athlete, which I now see as being problematic,” she continued.
In 2018, Pape briefly met Semenya and was able to talk to her about the journey of transformation she had undertaken and how she had inspired her.
“I had the chance to go to a conference for the International Working Group on Women and Sport (IWG). It was in Botswana and Semenya was there as a keynote speaker,” Pape said.
“Caster talked about her journey as an athlete, how her grandmother had influenced her, her relationship to sport growing up, what sorts of challenges she overcame.
“The question of gender eligibility and regulation was off-limits, but what that meant was we got to see all these other dimensions of Semenya as a person and all the amazing work that she does in South Africa in terms of supporting young women to succeed in sport.
“That was really illuminating for me, to see what a great role model Semenya is for so many people and what kind of a role she can play in sport, but it did make me reflect on and realise what a missed opportunity it was for international track and field,” she continued.
“I had a photo from our heats in Berlin, which she signed for me, and we just had a very brief chat where I was able to tell her how much I respected her. I really wanted her to know how much I, as a former competitor, looked up to her and admired what she does. It was really nice to be able to tell her that.
“Semenya really is someone that could be put up on a pedestal in the same way that we have done for Usain Bolt, for example. She has a lot of positive contributions to make to women’s sport, particularly in her region, but that gets obscured because of the way people focus on the issue of gender eligibility regulation and also because of how World Athletics has dealt with that issue.”
Despite the satisfaction Pape gets from studying the gendered aspects of sport, the end of a sporting career is always difficult and something she still struggles with. At the same time, she recognizes that without her running career, she wouldn’t be able to do what she does today.
“Honestly, it took me a really long time to feel that I could let go of the pain I experienced when I couldn’t continue my running career,” she shared.
“In some ways, I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder and some pain that I’ll carry with me, because of all the dreams that vanished prematurely, from an injury that I think shouldn’t have happened, that could have been prevented,” Pape continued.
“I was able to figure out a Plan B, but even when donning the Wisconsin gown during my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, if I had been given the chance to rewind all of it and have a few more years as an athlete, I think I might have taken it.
“It’s only been with time and with learning how to value and appreciate everything that running has brought to my life that I was able to heal because those gifts never go away.
“The work that I’m able to do now is intimately connected to what I experienced as an athlete.
“I have a different role and a different relationship with sport.
“Keeping sport as part of my life has been important, but what has also been important is realising that there are lots of ways to find joy and meaning in my life, and it doesn’t have to be sport.
“I’m really grateful for where life has taken me over the past 10 years since I sustained my injury.
“While I don’t necessarily accept what happened and how it happened, I do have an appreciation for the opportunities I’ve been given. The life I’ve been able to lead has been unplanned and unexpected and an entirely different journey than if I had continued as an athlete.”
Originally published for olympics.com.au