With a new documentary, a Tal University alumna – and former Olympian – explores how women are defined in sport

Phyllis Ellis sees a lot of similarities between making a movie and succeeding in sports.

“Hours and hours and hours of preparation. The kind of monomaniacal concentration. The idea that you can never give up. Fighting until the end… There is total commitment, and also a lot of learning that comes from successes and failures,” says Ellis, a former student of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto.

Ellis represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she played for the Canadian field hockey team, before embarking on a career as a director, actress and producer. His latest work – Category: Woman – was recently screened at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival. It focuses on four athletes from the Global South who have been forced out of competition by regulations that consider women with naturally high androgen levels to have a performance advantage. The International Amateur Athletic Federation (now World Athletics) has ruled that in order to compete, these female athletes must medically modify their healthy bodies.

The regulations came after Caster Semenya burst onto the world stage in 2009. The South African runner’s results were overshadowed by doubt and her personal medical records leaked to international media.

Phyllis Ellis playing for Team Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (photo courtesy of Ellis)

Ellis says she was drawn to the story after meeting some of the athletes and Payoshni Mitra, an activist who advocated on their behalf.

“The control 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 leave the film understanding that inclusion, harm prevention, non-discrimination and the primacy of bodily autonomy are what equal opportunity is really about.”

Ellis says her experience as an Olympian came in handy when she decided to focus on making documentaries.

“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been drawn to social and political issues centered on women’s experiences,” says Ellis, whose feature documentary Toxic Beauty was nominated for the 2021 International Emmys and won Best Directing and Best Writing at the Canadian Screen Awards (CSA).

“But I always thought I would return to sports in my film work.”

She adds that her experience as an athlete and Olympian has been formative.

“Being an athlete and representing Canada has been a wonderful experience in so many ways. I learned a lot and even though I didn’t know it at the time, I moved through the good times and the bad times and I’m grateful for that.

Naomi C. Amerson