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.

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  • B Damion

    Gezzz..she’s more of a man than I’ll ever be. Here’s lookin at you kid!..

  • Jaroslaw

    Personally, I feel most sports are just conduits to extract money from governments and the public via various means.

    Unfortunately whenever a lot of money is involved, whether it is real estate, banking, stocks, sports etc. cheating goes on.

    The difference with the Olympics is that nobody forces you to compete, it is completely voluntary. Whereas almost everything else I mentioned is involuntary for most of us.

    Does this mean I advocate discrimination in Olympics? No, but there are lots of other things we can devote our time to.

  • Tina

    They should do away with gender segregation and instead match racers with similar times – sounds like a few other sports, right?

  • Joe Clark

    So: Testing is “biased,” but, you admit, completely understandable and justified.

    Do you even read your own posts?

  • Cam

    I might be missing something, but why not just test for steroids and larger than normal doses of testosterone. Isn’t that what would give the “Male” atheleats the edge over the female? If they test up for testosterone then they can move aghead with other tests.

  • Lukas P.

    Is s/he or isn’t s/he?
    The “science” behind so-called gender testing & manipulation is still pubescent!

    Few researchers focus on it –and you’ll note from the names that many are northern Europeans, possibly because it’s not a taboo topic there. There are many questions that remain unanswered and even more that haven’t even been studied. Yet.

    So, the IOC is forced to rely on the best info they can get, realizing that the science is evolving and answers they come up with today may be shown to be invalid later on. Think about how our understanding about intersex individuals have evolved in just the last 10 years……

    This isn’t *just* a question of determining “who’s a man and who’s a woman.” During the Beijng Olympics questions were raised about the female Chinese gymnasts and whether their puberty had been hormonally tampered with. Some Eastern European countries of were accused, supposedly, of likewise altering relative hormone levels of female althletes. Anyone see the guns on some of the female decathletes? Wow. Were they born with that capability to develop that or was Dr Strangelove involved?

    This is just my personal opinion: The science of detecting bio-gender versus hormonal manipulation –“doping”– will lag behind the practice of experimenting with it on athletes. In a larger country, you’d be more likely to find folks with atypical inborn gender markers. Do those people compete fairly with people whose gender in unquestionable? Jury’s out.

    Male athletes stand to gain less of a competitive edge [strength, speed, stamina, etc.] from dilution of their “male” hormones than women do from altering the balance of male/female juicy juices coursing through their blood and tissues.

    The IOC focus on genitalia is interesting, but really, that’s just the first thing they can examine. Even so, it’s not just a yes/no, either/or science. Combine that with the potential for hormonal voodoo and we may not have clearcut answers for decades.

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