Are Female Athletes Woman Enough To Compete?
A lot has been written recently about the International Association of Athletics Federation, the governing body for track and field, and the new policy they've drafted to deal with female athletes who have excessive levels of male hormones.
On April 5 the International Olympic Committee co-signed and released new rules for determining whether or not women who have higher than usual levels of naturally produced testosterone will be eligible to compete in women’s sporting events. The IOC board agreed to put rules in place in time for the 2012 London Olympics and they've asked other sports federations to adopt similar measures.
Why was clarification needed? The issue of gender verification gained global attention after South African runner Caster Semenya was ordered to undergo sex tests after dominating the 800 meters at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. The then 18 year-old Semenya learned that her sex had been called into question via international newscasts and television reports after the competition. She wasn't accused of cheating or drug doping or DNA altering but she was accused of being a dude, perhaps inadvertantly. The embarrassing and shameful handling of the challenge to Semenya sparked lots of controversy within and outside the sports world.
The case dragged on for 11 months before the IAAF cleared Semenya to run again in July. The IAAF has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports that tests indicated Semenya had both male and female sex organs. Regardless of her personal circumstances, no athlete should have to face the patchwork policy on sex testing that previously existed, wondering what will happen if their particular condition is not clearly explained in the rules. (For backstory and context about Caster Semenya, WomenTalkSports.com has an indepth compilation of blog posts and articles.)
At the heart of the matter is whether a female athlete derives a competitive advantage over other women because of higher than normal levels of hormones such as testosterone (which btw is present in both males and females). Some women with the condition develop male-like body characteristics including more muscle mass.
Alice Dreger, a professor at Northwestern's School of Medicine, writes about the issue in today's New York Times article Redefining the Sexes in Unequal Terms
The bad news is that the new policy seems sexist in its philosophy. Indeed, it is so sexist that it may even count as a violation of Title IX, which will matter because the international policies will undoubtedly trickle down to school-based sports.
No question that determining sex is a very complicated process. The IOC and IAAF seem determined to draw a line that separates the men from the women for purposes of determining athletic eligibility when most medical experts who specialize in this area agree that drawing a hard and fast line is tricky.
In attempting to redefine the rules and what is "normal", the governing bodies organized a scientific symposium on the issue in Miami of January 2010 and a followup meeting last October. The 18 month-long review included sports officials, lawyers, human rights experts and doctors who have studied issues relating to the participation of female athletes with hyperandrogenism in athletics. Presumably careful consideration went into the process but in defining the new rules, the hormone policies seem solely targeted towards women. What about male athletes with “abnormally” high testosterone levels having an unfair advantage over their less “manly” competitors.
Gender researcher Pat Griffin takes issue with the IOC's ruling:
Will we next rule ineligible women who are “too” tall, or have “abnormal” oxygen update capacities or “too many” fast twitch muscle fibers? Once we start excluding women athletes based on their naturally occurring physiological differences and labeling those who have exceptional capacities “not normal,” where does it end?
Semenya continues training and expects to compete in both the 800 and 1,500m events at the 2012 London Games. She remains unfazed by questions about her gender -- as long as the fans' reactions remain positive. And she's hoping to break a world record at the Olympics when everyone is watching. No doubt she can do it. The bigger question is - who will be caught in the crosshairs next - and will the line in the sand move yet again?
Credit Image: © Xinhua/ZUMA Press
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