Date of Award

Spring 2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Director

Lindal Buchanan

Committee Member

Dana Heller

Committee Member

Michael Butterworth


Sport has long been thought of as an "opiate for the masses," where a collective can forget about social, political, racial, or economic differences and unify to compete in the same space or root for a common team (Eitzen and Sage 202). Scholarship in sports communication, sports rhetoric, and sports sociology, however, has shown that this view of sport as an apolitical cultural institution separate from impactful political debate is oversimplified. Rather, sports are key sites in which beliefs about gender, race, class, and politics are made manifest.

This dissertation uses the case of Caster Semenya, a female South African middle-distance runner who was wrongly accused of being a man competing in a women's race, to shed light on the ways athletics shape definitions of sex and gender. I suggest that governing bodies in professional athletics have employed rhetorical silence in rules to maintain the power to determine who can access the gendered space of an athletics competition and under what pretenses. I assert that despite the fact that competitive spaces restrict athletes' gender deliveries to a great degree, athletes such as Semenya still retain some autonomy in delivering their gender to viewers, though that delivery does have significant consequences. And finally, I suggest that U.S. media coverage of Semenya reaffirms a binary gender ideology by rhetorically scapegoating Semenya, separating her from the collective and symbolically sacrificing her to reaffirm binary gender ideals. By identifying the methods in which sex and gender ambiguity are presented and treated in sports, this dissertation identifies a need for a clearer, non-alienating way of discussing sex and gender variance in sport and society.