ESPN's 'Renee' looks at sex change in sport

Dr. Renee Richards, the 43-year-old transsexual who won

Dr. Renee Richards, the 43-year-old transsexual who won a year-long court battle to get to the women's draw, returns a ball to Britain's Virginia Wade at the U.S. Open. Richards lost in straight sets. (Sept. 1, 1977) (Credit: AP)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Renee Richards' struggle with personal identity and public acceptance is an obvious enough narrative in ESPN's Oct. 4 documentary, "Renee." But it is the fairness issue, of Richards' high-profile entrance in the 1977 U.S. Open tennis championships after sex-change surgery, that makes it a compelling sports topic.

The assumed "level playing field," a core principle of sports, becomes a mighty question in such a rare case as Richards'. Once a man, Richard Raskin, who was a good enough tennis player to play in the U.S. nationals 17 years earlier, the transformed Renee Richards struck many in the sport's establishment as something between a menacing threat and a masquerading cheat.

"The lesser [female] players were getting up in arms," former Wimbledon champ Virginia Wade says in the Eric Drath-directed film, thoroughly reported through in-depth interviews with Richards, tennis peers, old friends and Raskin's sometimes-bitter, still-confused son.

"What if she becomes No. 1?" Billie Jean King says of a prevailing question at the time. "Are we going to be able to handle that?"

The world of fun and games does not deal with such tricky dilemmas easily. In 2007, Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee able to run the 400 meters just a tick slower than the best able-bodied athletes in the world by using carbon-fiber artificial legs, temporarily was banned from Olympic qualifying events for fear that his spring-like prostheses gave him an edge over real legs.

Two years ago, then 18-year-old South African runner Caster Semenya, after winning the women's world 800-meter title, was forced to undergo gender verification tests after several of her beaten rivals questioned whether she, in fact, was a man. Because there have been real instances of men sneaked into women's events, and because other methods of sporting fraud will forever persist -- the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the violation of Little League age limits and so on -- worry over an unfair advantage does not always come from sore losers.

And there was the former Richard Raskin, six feet tall and with an aggressive serve-and-volley playing style, suddenly reappearing as a woman and winning a 1976 tournament in California. The documentary cites friends who had warned Richards not to resume playing tennis, because "you're going to win" and people would find out about the past.

Bud Collins, the tennis historian and writer, is quoted about suspicions fueled by stories that Communist nations "took boys and turned them into women to win all the tournaments. Some people believed that." Female players were refusing to participate in smaller tournaments entered by Richards.

"Some people acted as if this would become a trend," former player and current TV analyst Mary Carillo says on camera. "That they would change their sex to be a good tennis player." Carillo oozes apprehension. "Are you sure?" she says.

At the time, competitive sports for girls and women still was a limited endeavor. Though Title IX had been on the books since 1972, it did not yet have any real teeth, so high school and college sports opportunities for females was minimal. Tennis was one of the scarce venues for them to compete against each other; men had all sorts of possibilities.

But Richards, in the eyes of medical experts, had become a woman at 40, and won her suit against the U.S. Tennis Association for the right to play the Open -- a logical conclusion to the late Arthur Ashe, the '68 men's Open champion and human-rights activist. "If she can't play in the women's U.S. Open, and she can't play in the men's U.S. Open, because she's not a man," Ashe reasoned at the time, "where can she play?"

She was 43 at the time of her Open match on Sept. 1, 1977 (a loss to Wade), and her presence was a major international story. Not for the larger, sadder torments in her life addressed in "Renee," though even Richards wonders in the documentary if she should have been allowed to play on the women's tour. "Maybe it's not a level playing field," she says.

Far more apparent: Her sex-change operation was not a plot to take over women's tennis.