If You’re a Female Olympian, You Better Look Like One

By Julia Hunter, Editorial Intern

Art by Camisha Kelley, 17
Texas

The first women were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games in 1900.  At that time, out of 997 athletes, only 22 were women.  Additionally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) limited their participation to the sports thought to be ‘feminine,’ such as croquet and golf.

Since then, Title IX has made sex discrimination in federally funded schools and sports illegal.  It does not apply to professional or Olympic sports, but the conversation and controversy about the role and rights of women in sports has affected the Olympic Games.  From 1900 to 2012, the IOC has tried to improve its policies to benefit female athletes.  In 1991, IOC members decided that henceforth, any new sport introduced in the Olympics had to include both men’s and women’s events.  Three years later, the Olympic Charter ordered that the IOC promote women in sports at all levels and act with a “strict application of the principle of equality of men and women.”  With all of this new policy, you might expect that the IOC would be an organization dedicated to addressing the interests of women and men equally.

However, if you look at the actual members of the IOC, you may wonder.  According to their own 2011 reports, the IOC has 110 board members, but only 19 are women.  Thus, less than 20 percent of the
This year, in preparing for the 2012 Olympics, the IOC is struggling with a very complex issue related to women’s inclusion in the Olympics:people making decisions about the Olympic Games are women. As much as the IOC professes to be fair and to support women’s interests, the reality is that they haven’t done much to ensure equal representation of women.

When should someone who identifies as a woman be allowed to participate in women’s athletic events?  When should she not?

Many people may remember the case of the South African runner, Caster Semenya, who won the gold medal in the women’s 800 meter race.  Her androgynous appearance made headlines, and a participant from Italy remarked, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”  Semenya was banned from competing for 11 months during ‘investigations,’ but she was allowed to keep her gold medal and will be back participating (as a woman) in the upcoming Olympic Games.  What changed?  According to a track and field manager at the University of Pretoria, which is located next to where Semenya trains, Semenya  did have hormone treatments.  Semenya declines to comment on the topic.  If Semenya received hormone treatments, they most likely aimed to reduce her testosterone level, a hormone produced, on average, in larger quantities in men than in women (although there is a great deal of variation between people of the same sex, as well as across the sexes).

The particular case of Caster Semenya has led the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to write new standards for managing inter-sex athletes and to create a test to determine who should be categorized as a ‘woman’ for athletic purposes.  This idea might seem cutting edge, but in fact, it’s nothing new.  Until the 1960s, women were required to walk naked in front of a ‘panel of experts’ who assessed the appropriateness of their sexuality in a sort of warped beauty pageant.  Thankfully, this practice ended in 1968.  However, only four years ago, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a sex-determination lab was set up in order to test “suspect” female athletes.

In trying to deal with the fact that gender is increasingly viewed more broadly, as a spectrum rather than as rigid, opposite categories of “male vs. female, the IOC is searching for the best solutions to allow the Olympics to be a fair event for everyone.  Their latest idea is to perform hormone testing on athletes, which requires evaluation of factors like back hair and breast size.  One endocrinologist employed by the IAAF, Dr. Myron Genel, says, “We’ll get it right.” That sounds reassuring, but in fact, he never indicates when exactly the criteria will be.

So what’s happening in the meantime? Well, the “flavor of the month” for femininity testing is judging a woman’s femininity by her testosterone levels.  Too much testosterone?  The response may be: “Well, sorry honey, you might have to sit out this year, or at least go through time-intensive and unpredictable hormone treatments.  If they affect your athletic performance and other aspects of your life, well, too bad.”

According to an article published in the New York Times, testosterone is one of the worst markers that the IAAF could have chosen to determine the sex of athletes.  Sure, on average, testosterone levels are different between men and women, but they also differ based on the time of day, age, and one’s level of athletic training.  Thus, this system seems somewhat problematic, considering that most of the women participating in the Olympics have been doing intense daily training for years, certainly enough to alter testosterone levels in their bodies!  Furthermore, medical science indicates that despite what testosterone levels might be present in your body, there’s no way of knowing how each person’s body responds to that testosterone.

In sum, it appears that scientists don’t yet have a clear-cut solution to offer the IOC, even if they’re determined to “get it right” one day.  With such a complicated issue, the IOC might consider listening to the athletes themselves.  Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, says, “If the proclaimed human right of self-expression is to mean anything, surely it should protect the right to name one’s own gender.”  Unfortunately for Olympic athletes and their fans, that right still isn’t protected by the IOC.

The IOC and IAAF are trying their best to find a solution to a complex problem, but a decision about gender testing might best be held off until scientists, athletes, and the IOC come to an agreement on a test that really works without invading an athlete’s right to privacy and health.  In the meantime, in preparing for the 2012 Olympics, the IOC should think seriously about not only who they allow to compete, but who they allow to take part in these complicated decisions.  And maybe, when a woman qualifies to compete at a superior athletic level, she should more consistently be regarded with respect—not questions about her gender.

For more information, see the sources used in writing this blog:

www.olympic.org

“Olympic Games are Obsessed with Policing Femininity” www.feministing.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s