By Braegan Padley ‘13
The Olympics evoke images for many around the world: an athlete with their nation’s flag draped around their shoulders, donning a gold medal around their neck. But as the London 2012 Games near, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently fixed its gaze below the belt, quietly issuing its new gender verification policy.
While there are several different criteria for determining one’s sex, the newly adopted policy looks solely at female athletes’ testosterone levels. Women whose test results fall within the normal male testosterone range will be banned from competition unless and until they submit to medical intervention.
Perhaps no athlete is more familiar with international gender testing policies than South African middle distance runner, Caster Semenya, who sparked international controversy after winning the 2009 world championship in striking fashion. Based on her impressive performance and masculine physique, fellow competitors accused Semenya of being a man. Following her world championship Semenya underwent gender testing under the International Association of Athletic Federations. While the test results were not released for confidentiality reasons, Semenya was banned from competition, leading many to speculate that she was in fact biologically male. But Semenya was reinstated in 2011, returning to the track looking noticeably more feminine (and slower), and she has been cleared to compete as a woman 2012 London Games.
Gender testing is not new to the Olympics. There have been various iterations of gender testing since 1936 stemming from concerns about “fraud” and “fairness.” In 1948 the IOC implemented its first formal female sex verification policy, which required all competitors to submit medical “certificates of femininity.” In the 1960s, the IOC adopted standardized tests, which included compulsory “nude parades” in front of physicians. Not surprisingly, this drew intense criticism so in 1967 chromosomal testing was implemented in its place. By 1992 this method was also abandoned after complaints that it was discriminatory.
Whereas old policies aimed to stop men from competing in women’s events, the new policy focuses on regulating athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels irrespective of biological sex. (Note: this policy only pertains to women; male athletes are not subject to the IOC’s gender verification policy).
The IOC has defended the testosterone-based method claiming it is a less invasive than the available alternatives. Further, by homing in on testosterone – with higher levels believed to correspond to increased size, strength, speed and stamina – the committee is able to target only those who are receiving an unfair athletic advantage.
Critics initially dismissed the policy as scientifically baseless, citing a lack of direct evidence linking testosterone levels and athletic performance. Further, the policy fails to specify the permissible level of testosterone in females. Instead, many of those opposing the testosterone test would rather allow all athletes to self-identify. While this is a perfectly accommodating policy for most realms of life, to allow self-identification in sport is misguided. No more should we allow men to compete as women than we should allow adults to self-identify as children and compete in youth leagues.
There is no tidy definition of gender. We tend to think of it in binary terms – male or female – but gender exists on a spectrum. As such, perhaps the IOC should look to include multiple measures of sex and gender in making their determination. A more comprehensive test that examines testosterone in addition to chromosomes and genitalia would be more invasive, but has the benefit of weighing multiple factors when determining athletes’ gender.
Is the IOC’s new policy imperfect? Sure. Is there a better way? Certainly. But at the end of the day there is no perfect answer. There exists a need for gender verification and you have to draw the line somewhere. The Olympics have never been about universal inclusion. It is a privilege reserved for sport’s most elite. Athletes must comply with numerous other requirements before they can compete as Olympians – everything from age minimums, to time standards, to citizenship verification. Why not just approach gender verification as another step on the road to the games?