gender and athletes

I find this story fascinating. It’s about a gender test being demanded of an athlete, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who is competing at the world games. The world track and field federation calls this test, “extremely complex, difficult,” involving a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender. I’m curious what constitutes such an expert. The spokesman for the track and field federation is quoted as saying,

If there’s a problem and it turns out that there’s been a fraud … that someone has changed sex, then obviously it would be much easier to strip results. However, if it’s a natural thing and the athlete has always thought she’s a woman or been a woman, it’s not exactly cheating.

Where I suddenly paused was the phrase, “the athlete has always thought she’s a woman…”

It’s interesting to me that an athletics federation might be at the forefront of the politics of gender identity. This is not a group that is saying, “Look, it’s simple. Either you have the parts or you don’t.” Ross Tucker does a very good job covering the issues here in his blog, “The Science of Sport.” Tucker brings up some important points – how this could and should have been addressed well before the world championships in Berlin, and importantly, how difficult and hurtful this must be for Ms. Semenya. The comments raise some interesting points, and generate questions about what it means to compete against legitimate vs. illegitimate opponents.

5 thoughts on “gender and athletes”

  1. First of all, I disagree that this is a gender test, and I don’t understand why the officials are discussing it this way (language barrier?). Her gender is clear: she is a woman. What they are testing for is her sex: male v. female.

    Unless they get a clear-cut answer, like an xy chromosome plus testosterone levels in the average male range, plus gonads that are male, they are up for an impossible task. There is no single line that defines maleness as distinct from femaleness, and there is a lot of room to be in between male and female in physical, chemical, and chromosomal ways.

    The sports world, perhaps, is proposing to set a new standard of “how much female” counts, which is unprecedented. Judgment calls are made all the time for intersex infants, but no one has drawn lines like this so far.

    Also, I want to point out that the IOC has recently issued a statement in support of transgender athletes
    that has been the guiding rule in sports, though it doesn’t rule out occasional sex testing, which seems contradictory to me.


  2. I know next to nothing about sports, so I’ve stayed out of this mostly, but I agree with Tina re sex/gender and re the blurry boundary. As I understand it, testosterone is what builds muscle mass and gives the edge that this sex testing is trying to deal with. But MTF transsexuals get rid of the testosterone in the change and can lose mass thereafter, although I guess this is affected by the age at which you do this (as I said, I’m no expert). On the other side, women vary greatly in the amount of testosterone they “naturally” have for a whole variety of reasons. And both sexes vary tremendously in muscle mass and the other physical characteristics that distinguish world class athletes from those who are merely in good shape from working out a lot.

    Assumptions of gender dichotomy in sports or restrooms or drivers licenses and whatnot are what cause trouble for all of the folks who are not clearly dichotomous.

    What is interesting about the athlete case is that the gender division in sports is designed to give women a chance of winning in events where the testosterone edge would make them otherwise non-starters. Right? But are there really that many guys who would choose emasculation for a chance to be a top female athlete, or that many intersexual people, to seriously disrupt women’s athletics? Is it difficult to distinguish “natural” women who have been taking testosterone on the sly from intersexual people or transsexual people who may have higher levels of testosterone from a more natural avenue?


    1. Just adding a follow-up to the article I linked before, now that rumors that Semenya is intersex have been leaked to the Australian press.

      I think its best points are about the racism inherent in the idea of what women are “supposed” to look like (some of the quotes I’ve seen supporting testing Semenya are horrifying), and their point that no world-class athlete has a “normal” body, but only women are punished for it:

      Exceptional male athletes are treated like kings, not sideshow freaks. But for women to join them on the royal dais, you must appear as if you can step seamlessly from the court or track and into the pages of soft-core porn. Freaks need not apply.


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