The history behind justifying discrimination in athletics
Since the modern Olympics began and women were finally allowed to compete in the 1900 Olympics, there have been certain standards implemented to level the playing field for all athletes. At the forefront of these guidelines is that men and women are not allowed to compete against each other, as there are definitive differences in physical characteristics between the two sexes.
However, there is a stark difference between “leveling the playing field” and denouncing the advantageous qualities in some women that allow them to excel while celebrating the same qualities of male athletes. Seen on the surface as sexist media coverage, this bizarre societal dynamic ran rampant at the Rio 2016 Olympics where Gold Medalist athletes like Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles were praised for being the female counterparts to male Olympians instead of applauded for their own dedication and accomplishment.
This issue goes much deeper than seemingly sexist media coverage at the Rio Olympics. The point of origin lies with the process of gender verification testing. This is a genetic test that is aimed to investigate athletes that don’t fit many of the stereotypes regarding femininity and performance that are projected upon female athletes. While this may seem like it goes along with the guidelines of keeping the playing field fair, in the past 48 years that this practice has been implemented, it has repeatedly targeted female athletes who seem to perform a little too well athletically. Gender verification testing creates an environment where equalizing the playing field has transformed into a form of biological sexism propagating the idea that strong, athletic women don’t occur naturally and should be questioned.
The suspicion of gender fraud in these huge athletic events first originated in the 1936 Olympics when, as reported by the New York Times, female runners Stella Walsh of Poland and Helen Stephens of the United States were accused of being male for their stellar running times and somewhat masculine physiques. Only two years later, Dora Ratjen, a German high-jumper, was forced to return her gold medal because she was found to have male genitalia. The Olympic committee eventually updated its humiliating techniques for testing gender, namely stripping in front of a courtroom, and adopted more scientific measures for gender verification testing in 1968. Since then there have been three highly publicized cases of female athletes who were investigated based on complaints that their performances, or physiques were in fact too masculine.
As reported by Matt Slater of BBC, Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, a Spanish hurdler, was suspended from competing for three years in 1985 after being identified as an XY female. Her condition, Swyer syndrome, occurs when the Y chromosome only affects the functioning of the ovaries and usually doesn’t present any advantageous male traits. Martinez-Patino had to fight for all three of those years to explain that her lack of estrogen production did not mean that the naturally high levels of testosterone in her system gave her any advantage in competition.
In April of 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations implemented a new set of rules regarding the amount of testosterone a female could have in their bloodstream before they qualified as “masculine.” In agreement with the International Olympic Committee, the committee mandated that this qualified as “anything above the bottom of the male range, 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) of blood.” A test could be administered if there was any suspicion of gender fraud based on appearance, or the possibility that the athlete in question could be doping. So what’s wrong here? Testosterone is not merely a male hormone, though it is typically associated with masculine traits. This narrow scale especially loses its grounding in light of the strides we have made in regards to our understanding of hyperandrogenism and other genetic sexual abnormalities. In many cases high levels of testosterone have very little effect on these athletes’ performance.
Judith Peraino, faculty member of Cornell University’s Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies department, said “Any ‘gender testing’ is invasive and inherently biased to norms, and I think that as a broader spectrum of gender expression becomes recognized, sports organizations will need to figure out new ways to classify the abstract physical capacities of bodies to ensure fair competitions—weight, bone and muscle density, strength and endurance categories. These need not be tied to gender in any essential way.”
This impression was echoed by Vanderbilt University professor John M. Sloop, author of Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture.
“The problem that I see, or the one we need to talk about, is there have been standards for how we define gender, and yet they are always shifting. In creating these rules we, and by we I mean the IOC, have to be consistent, transparent (explaining what meets the standards) and most importantly, we need to acknowledge that this definition is not natural, we need to remember that these are social constructs—made up, just like the rules of the game.”
If all of these rules and guidelines are meant to level the athletic playing field, why has there never been any coverage of male genetic testing? Perhaps it has something to do with the stereotype of femininity still pushed upon female athletes. Sara Shostak, associate professor of Sociology at Brandeis University, heavily questioned the specific expectations set for female athletes. Shostak said they are being pulled in two different directions in regards to what their sport demands of their body, versus what society demands of their gender in line with stereotypes.
“It’s interesting how much of the focus is on the alleged lack of femininity in these athletes; can we imagine an athlete who’s very stereotypically feminine in her appearances and performs as well as Castor Semenya, would she get gender tested?” Shostak said.
Caster Semenya was another high profile female athlete who, at age 18, knocked 7 seconds off of her PR in the 800m, breaking the South African record and setting a dazzling precedent for her future competitors. Instead of being commended for this accomplishment, as BBC journalist Matt Slater wrote, “The IAAF felt “obliged to investigate [Semenya]”, if only to rule out doping.” Semenya was found to have high levels of testosterone in her bloodstream and consequently was barred from competing for several months while the International Olympic Committee decided if this had been the reason behind her outstanding performance. A common theme in all reporting on Olympic athletes is the noticeable double standard when it comes to skilled performances.
Sloop said: “To be an Olympic athlete is to be somewhat outside of the norm. To be competing at the Olympic level you’re already outside of the norms, but naturally in the sense that that’s just what your body does. Except for when you’re female, and this is why it’s so important that we [the IOC] define gender.”
That’s why athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, who are biologically gifted with advantages like a tremendously long wingspan or high functioning fast twitch muscles that are key in sprinting, are celebrated, while in the case of Semenya, it’s thought there must be something illegal happening for her to be so good.
The most recent and most influential case of gender testing took place in regards to Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who amazed the running world with her championships in the 100m and 200m runs. She failed a series of grueling gender verification tests and was prohibited from competing altogether in 2014. Chand ended up going to court over the unjust regulation of testosterone in female Olympic athletes versus the lack of any such regulation in males. As New York Times journalist John Branch reported in late July after the court ruled in Chand’s favor, “The final appeals court for global sports further blurred the line separating male and female athletes on Monday, ruling that a common factor in distinguishing the sexes — the level of natural testosterone in an athlete’s body — is insufficient to bar some women from competing against females.” The IOC and the IAAF finally admitted that they were wrong and this was a huge win for Chand and other athletes like her. It allowed them to compete for the next two years while the IOC and the IAAF examined the regulations that are necessary to keep an “equal competition field” between the sexes, since testosterone is not an accurate unit of measurement.
But if all of this is supposed to ensure a level of equality, there’s something wrong with the fact that biological inequalities seem to be the only ones addressed regarding Olympic athletes. “There really isn’t the same type of popular conversation about the other kinds of inequalities that might distinguish athletes from each other are brought up,” Shostak said, “like what kind of training/facilities did these athletes have available in their youth?”
It’s very interesting that, at least in the field of athletics, we, as a society, are still so focused on physical and biological forms of equality while the wide range of athletes’ backgrounds hold no real merit as long as they can perform. So be warned — if you’re a female who performs well but doesn’t fit the feminine stereotype, you may have to undergo gender verification testing, no matter how wrong that seems.
Mila Phelps-Friedl is second-year journalism major who will tackle anyone who thinks gender testing is a good idea. You can reach them at email@example.com.