intersexed athletes

Are Any Olympic Athletes Going to Win a Gold Medal and a Fun Gender Test?

Depending on whether any masculine women score gold medals that opposing nations don’t think they deserve, maybe! With the 2010 Winter Olympics underway and gold medals being handed out, the question of whether “suspicious” athletes will need to have their genitals and blood examined arises. And so too does one glaring fact: gender testing is completely biased against women.

First, let’s get this out of the way: We’re dealing with issues of intersexed athletes, a resurrected brouhaha because of South African track star Caster Semenya, who had the embarrassing misfortune of having her gender identity parsed by the media, athletic leagues, and doctors all because she was too successful in sprinting past the competition to be considered a true woman. This is a touchy subject, because it throws in all the necessary criteria for ignorant namecalling: biology, gender, and sport. Let’s try to get beyond that without unnecessary insensitive, cool?

Not since 2000 have females been subject to mandated genetic testing at the Olympics. Perhaps for good reason: “At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the last at which gender verification testing of female athletes was mandatory, out of 3,000 tests administered, eight showed up positive (as being considered male). Upon further examination, seven of those athletes were found to have AIS and the eight had an enzyme deficiency. All eight athletes were given the go-ahead to compete.” That is: Testing for gender can be a bunk science, for reasons the second part of this BBC report can better explain than we, but it has to do with sliding scales of widely skewed biological variables.

Testing for gender is as imperfect a science as defining gender. (Yes, “gender” is a social construct, while “sex” is a biological one, blah blah.) Are chromosomes the determining factor? Genitalia? Levels of testosterone?

In sport, the common assumption is that there is a competitive advantage to be a man and compete as a woman, since a man’s higher muscle mass generally equals stronger performance, and the ability to trounce your female competitors. This is why Olympic female athletes were subjected to gender testing, while those identifying as male are automatically assumed to be; what woman would try to pass as a man and assume a disadvantage? (This debate also assumes athletes try to hide their intersexuality from officials, when quite often intersexed people are unaware they share strong characteristics of the opposite gender.)

But just because gender testing is no longer mandatory during the Olympics doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.

Last week the International Olympic Committee’s General Assembly was briefed by the head of its Medical Commission Professor Arne Ljungqvist who recommended that “strategically located centres of excellence should be established to which athletes with a DSD (disorder of sex development) could be referred and, if necessary, further investigated and treated.”

“To be clear women are the target here. This issue is about the classification of female athletes not male athletes. There is little sporting advantage to a male athlete having a low testosterone level, however, there can be significant advantages to a female athlete in having a higher testosterone level,” says Michele Veroken, a leading sports integrity and ethics specialist.

And thus it is women who are also the target of international sporting leagues’ decisions to force intersexed athletes to actually have surgery or undergo hormonal treatment to remain eligible to compete.

In mid-January of this year the IOC and the educational arm of the IAAF held a gender symposium in Miami. It was attended by about 15 scientists, medical experts and sports federation doctors from around the world – according to the IOC press release all were experts on Disorders of Sex Development (DSD). Caster Semenya’s name did not appear on the agenda but in many ways the symposium was all about her. The issue on the table was what to do with women with any kind of gender ambiguity.

[…] Asked about the possible treatments referred to, Professor Ljungqvist said, such treatments could be forms of hormone therapy or as he told the BBC “perhaps surgery, the removal of gonadal or testicular tissue”. “We explored the science of all these matters. We established several important points based on up-to-date science and global expertise. Now we have the scientific basis for going further,” the professor later told AP.

The IOC’s Medical Commission will not say what criteria they use to define female gender, so what exactly do they consider an ambiguity? All they have made clear so far is that eligibility of such athletes for competition will be considered on a case by case basis. Words such as eligibility, diagnosis, disorder, treatment and surgery have triggered alarms throughout the international sporting world. In the future, what might happen to a female athlete diagnosed with a DSD?

“If that person wants to compete again they may have no option but to undergo treatment or even surgery – if not, they may have to leave the sport. And if they do undergo any such treatment or surgery are there guarantees they will be able to compete? Could this result in athletes still not being compliant with the rules,” asks Michele Veroken. “We are heading into uncharted water here, would athletes be required to receive treatment before they participate in sport? What if they have already competed, would those results be disqualified? And of course the legality of any such proposed plan would no doubt be contested by athletes and human rights groups.”

None of this makes us feel very good. And yet, we have no idea how to make this right.