Sex, Gender, and the Olympics

Posted on July 30, 2012


I could almost feel sorry for the International Olympics Committee.

Almost. But then I think about the lives that have been damaged by their insistence on sorting out who “really” is female, and who is not.

Beginning in 1968 the International Olympics Committee required individuals seeking to compete in women’s events to prove “their femininity or female gender”, and if questions were raised, chromosomal analysis was to resolve uncertainties.

The policy drew critical attention from the medical and legal professions.

Law scholars noted that the requirement that only female athletes undergo testing violated expectations of equal treatment of men and women.

This is not entirely surprising: there is a long history of the Olympics treating women competitors as a suspect category. In a previous blog post, I discussed the work of Norwegian historian Kerstin Bornholdt, who examined the unfounded fears that women’s bodies would be harmed that led to the elimination of women’s competition in the 800 meter race in 1928, not resumed until 1960.

The most predictable problems resulting from the IOC’s 1968 policy were biomedical: chromosomal testing did not solve the “problem” of identifying “real” women. Anne Fausto Sterling starts her landmark book, Sexing the Body, with the story of one of the failures: Maria Patiño, a Spanish hurdler, tested as having a Y-chromosome. Despite the fact that she had lived all her life as a woman, and externally showed no signs of maleness, she was disqualified to compete as a woman.

By 1999, the IOC abandoned their original attempt to enforce the chromosomal identification of femininity. As a story about the current Olympics in the Los Angeles Times describes the history,

The International Olympic Committee has struggled … variously using hair patterns, chromosomes, individual genes and other factors in their long-running attempts to distinguish men from women. All of these tests have been discarded.

Notice the wording: although the LA Times story is actually fairly good on the science, it manages to sort of miss the point. The IOC has not been trying to “distinguish men from women”: it has been policing who counts as a woman. If it were trying to distinguish men from women, we might expect testing of both self-identified sexes.

The latest approach from the IOC makes crystal clear that it is only the ambiguity of women participating in competitive athletics that concerns them. This year, they want to assess femininity on the basis of hormone levels.

If you have testosterone readings in a range the IOC defines as typical of males, you cannot compete as a woman.

Sounds more fair, right? after all, everyone knows that testosterone helps athletic performance.

Except for one thing: as the LA Times reports, the scientific evidence is actually unclear. Most research on the effects of these hormones has been done on men, not women, and the research that does exist does not support the idea that hormone levels accompany better athletic performance:

Many women with androgen insensitivity [which prevents testosterone from being used] have competed in the Olympics, and “the idea that testosterone is a necessary ingredient for elite athletic performance is really undermined by these cases,” Van Anders said.

In fact, androgen insensitivity is overrepresented among female athletes, Vilain added: The general population has an incidence of 1 in 20,000, but for Olympic athletes it is about 1 in 400. No one knows why.

Want more? it turns out that successful male athletes don’t always have higher testosterone levels, either. The Global Post reports that a study by Allan Mazur of Syracuse University of male Olympic athletes

found that more than 25 percent had testosterone levels below the “normal” male range.

All of which should suggest that the IOC is embarking on another failed attempt to regulate sex.

A new article in the American Journal of Bioethics calls on the IOC to stop trying to define gender biologically, and to let people compete in whichever division their legally recognized sex would indicate.

Medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis, the lead author, is quoted in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as saying

“What makes sex testing so complicated is that there is no one marker in the body we can use to say, ‘This is a man,’ or ‘This is a woman,’ …These new policies try to get around that complexity by singling out  testosterone levels as the most important aspect of athletic advantage. But what causes athletic advantage is equally complex and cannot be reduced to testosterone levels.”

The American Journal of Bioethics article makes the point clearly that there are many different ways sex is assigned, they do not coincide, and they do not map onto a single binary of male and female:

Sex is commonly thought to be straightforward, consisting of two clear categories of male and female. Yet there are at least six markers of sex—including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia—and none of these are binary.

Writing in The New York Times, Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katina Karkazis, lead authors, make a number of provocative and timely arguments.

Like legal scholars did after the 1968 initiation of chromosomal sex testing, they note that these policies are inequitable:

Sex testing of female athletes will always be discriminatory. Under the new policy, men will most likely continue to enjoy freedom from scrutiny, even though they, too, have greatly varying testosterone levels, along with other variations in natural attributes that affect athletic performance.

As did Kerstin Bornholdt, they call out the ideology of protecting women involved:

Sex tests are based on the notion that fair competition requires “protecting” female athletes. Protection has been the cloak that covers all manner of sex discrimination, and it is seldom, if ever, the best way to advance equality.

They point out that the modern history shows that the people identified as not fitting the IOC model of femininity are not automatically more successful in competition; they are not actually “superwomen”:

What are these tests protecting women from? Men infiltrating women’s competitions? A century of monitoring competitions for sex fraud says no. Will superwomen crowd out other athletes? No again. Women who have been ensnared by sex-testing dragnets have often been impressive, but not out of line with other elite female athletes.

Most intriguing is their suggested solution, which is to stop automatically structuring athletic competition by a sex binary:

If the goal is instead to group athletes so that everyone has a chance to play, to excel and — yes — to win, then sex-segregated competition is just one of many possible options, and in many cases it might not be the best one.

Sex segregation is probably a good idea in some sports, at some levels and at some moments. But it is time to refocus policy discussions at every level so that sex segregation is one means to achieve fairness, not the ultimate goal. Ensuring gender equity through access to opportunity is just as important.

[emphasis added]

This point may not be immediately obvious to readers. What they are saying is that in some sports, people of different sexual makeup may be able to compete in a mixed group without automatically having achievement stratify by sex. Instead of beginning with the assumption that women are weaker and categorically unable to reach high levels of achievement, this should be assessed for each kind of athletic competition. And they are– I think quite rightly– linking sex segregation to lower access to athletics for the sex presumed to have less interest: women.

What more could I want? I still wish we could figure out how, in the national media debate, to hammer home the point they make, that “there are at least six markers of sex…and none of these are binary”. For me, that is why the Olympics insistence on assessing women for their adherence to a presumed dichotomous norm is most distressing. There is no “third gender/third sex” division in the Olympics. Either you compete as a male or a female.

But that is not what the very markers of biological sex that the IOC keeps trying to use are telling us. People don’t come in two and only two kinds.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that could get across to people through the very visibility of the athletic competition that has, for so long, tried to pretend otherwise?

[A version of some of the above was posted at What Makes Us Human on Psychology Today under the title “Are you a boy, or are you a girl?”. This version reflects further, and more careful, thinking about the rhetoric of the news coverage.]