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May 4, 2022 | Alumni

'In order to compete, female athletes must medically alter healthy bodies': U of T alumna's documentary 'Category: Woman'

By Jelena Damjanovic

Caster Semenya smiles and waves the South African flag while standing on the track in a stadium.

Olympic champion Caster Semenya is the face of the ongoing debate over the definition of a female athlete, but she's not the only athlete affected by it. Alumna Phyllis Ellis explores the topic further in her new documentary Category: Woman (photo of Caster Semenya by Flickr user Jon Connell)

When Phyllis Ellis, an award winning documentary filmmaker, looks back on her time as a competitive athlete, she sees a lot of similarities between the efforts that go into making a film and succeeding in sport.

“The hours and hours and hours of preparation. The sort of monomaniacal focus. The idea that you can never give up. Fighting to the finish … There’s a total commitment, and also a lot of learning that happens from both successes and failures,” says Ellis, who graduated with a bachelor of physical health and education from the University of Toronto and represented Canada in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles before embarking on a career of filmmaking, acting and producing. 

“Being an athlete and representing Canada was a wonderful experience in more ways than not,” she says. “I learned a lot and although I didn't know it at the time, I have carried the good and the tough times forward and I'm thankful for that.”

Inclusion, prevention of harm, nondiscrimination and primacy of bodily autonomy is what a level playing field actually is

The experience came in handy when she decided to devote herself to making documentaries.

“As a filmmaker, I have always been drawn to social and political issues that centre on the experiences of women,” says Ellis, whose feature documentary Toxic Beauty was nominated for the 2021 International Emmys and won best direction and best writing at the Canadian Screen Awards (CSA). “But I always thought I’d come back to sport in my work in film.”

Category: Woman, her new documentary film, focuses on four athletes from the Global South who were forced out of competition by regulations that deem women with naturally high androgen levels to have a performance advantage. The International Amateur Athletics Federation (now World Athletics) ruled that in order to compete, these female athletes must medically alter their healthy bodies. These regulations came at the heels of Caster Semenya’s bursting onto the world stage in 2009. The South African runner’s victories were overshadowed by doubt and her personal medical records leaked to international media. 


Ellis says she was drawn to the story after meeting some of the athletes and Payoshni Mitria, an activist who has been advocating on their behalf. 

“The policing of women's bodies in sport is an ongoing issue that continues under the guise of fair play,” says Ellis. “I hope viewers of our documentary will walk away from the movie with an understanding that inclusion, prevention of harm, nondiscrimination and primacy of bodily autonomy is what a level playing field actually is.”

Category: Woman is screening at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival through May 8.