Is measuring an athlete’s ‘femaleness’ ever acceptable?

It’s a stressful time for any Olympic contender right now, as they focus on peaking at the right time, steering clear of injuries and preparing mentally for the ultimate contest. But some female athletes have an extra thing to worry about: gender authentication.
You may remember the furore surrounding the South African 800m runner Caster Semenya when, in 2009, she who won the world championships in Berlin by a huge 2-second margin. Even before the medals had been handed out, Semenya’s authenticity as a woman was being questioned and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) confirmed that gender verification tests were being undertaken.
While Semenya’s case was being reviewed by the IAAF she was banned from competition, but did not escape the glare of media speculation (one headline asked “Woman, man or a little bit of both?”). Although the IAAF never made its findings public, it was widely reported that Semenya had both male and female sex organs and testosterone levels three times higher than typically found in a woman. Semenya got to keep her medal and, after an 11-month hiatus, the right to continue competing against other women. Through her legal representatives, she stated at the time: “I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”
The bungled and insensitive handling of Semenya’s case led to the IAAF reviewing its gender authentication policy in consultation with the International Olympic Committee. Last year, they introduced regulations specifically related to hyperandrogenism – the presence of excessive levels of male hormones in women. The new rules state that a female athlete’s serum testosterone levels must be below the male threshold (or, if within the male range, androgen resistance – in which the presence of the hormones proffers no advantage – must be proven). If this isn’t the case, then the athlete may need to undergo surgical or hormone treatment and be subject to regular monitoring if they wish to continue competing as a woman. At present, the IAAF is the only sporting governing body to have adopted these guidelines but it is expected many more will follow suit.
In the dim and distant past (the 1960s, actually) athletes had to parade naked in front of officials to verify their sex. So you could say that it’s a positive step that testing has become more sophisticated, comprehensive and considered. But is measuring a woman’s “femaleness” acceptable at all?
Sport is anything but a level playing field. No matter how much you want to be an athlete, you simply don’t have a chance if you didn’t choose the right parents. Right from the starting blocks, those athletes with the “best” genes – the right type of muscle fibres, the highest VO2 maxes, the longest limbs – are at an advantage. That’s just the way it is. So why should hormone levels be any different? And intrinsic factors are just a part of the injustice of individual differences. What about how much money you, your family or sports governing body have to invest in training, kit and sport science support to ensure you are the best you can be?
The number of athletes the new IAAF ruling has affected is not known, just as it’s not known (though it has been reported) whether Semenya, who qualified easily for the London Olympics, is, or has been, subject to any medical treatment as a result of her case. Whatever the numbers, it puts us in an outlandish situation where drugs are administered to detract from performance, rather than to enhance it: doping in reverse, all in aid of “fairness”.
“For me, she is not a woman,” said the Italian athlete Elisa Piccione, one of Semenya’s rivals at the Berlin race. Piccione probably sees herself in the same boat as the women track-and-field athletes who complain how “out of reach” the world records are in their disciplines. They may have a case – 13 world records in women’s track and field were set pre-1989, when random drug testing became mandatory: the fact that such a high number of world records has remained unbroken for so long suggests that many of those were attained through drug use.
But this scenario is different. No one’s accusing Semenya of taking drugs – just of being too manly to be female. Is it a fair accusation? Well, you could argue that given that male hormones are associated with strength and speed, having a higher level, albeit by birth, gives an unfair advantage. But I doubt male sprinters and middle distance athletes have identical hormone levels. Does the unusually slight French 100m runner, Christophe Lemaitre, match Usain Bolt’s testosterone levels? And if not, does that mean they shouldn’t be in the same races? Should basketball players taller than 7ft be penalised? Or Kenyan distance runners be handicapped?
Men run fast and get praise heaped on them. Women run fast and get derogatory comments about their physiques and question marks raised over their femininity. What we should be celebrating at the London Olympics is great performances by female athletes – their dedication, natural ability, guts and skill. Just as we do their male counterparts. – © Guardian News and Media 2012
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