Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What it Means to be a Woman in the Olympics

In my latest column for Bridges I discuss the newly adopted regulations by the IOC which determine who is eligible to compete in the woman's events. Arbiters have turned to science to draw a bright line, but unfortunately science paints in shades of grey.

Here is an excerpt:
[I]t turns out that the science of gender is not so straightforward, and human evolution has not made us all so that we easily fit into binary categories. The IOC recognizes this and explains that human biology "allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female." Recognizing this ambiguity, the IOC explains: "Nothing in these Regulations is intended to make any determination of sex."

Instead, it has tried to implement a regulation that uses science as a proxy for determining sex. Writing in The New York Times, a medical geneticist who advised the IOC argued that science could resolve this issue: "Let's forget for a while about gender identity politics" and focus on "one parameter that ... could entirely explain why men did better than women in elite sports." The proposed candidate parameter is biological levels of testosterone, admittedly imperfect but apparently serviceable.

The IOC explains that female athletes with levels of androgenic hormones that "fall into the male range" that confers a "functional" competitive advantage will be disqualified from competing in women's events. The IOC makes an explicit comparison between those athletes who have doped by taking steroids and those athletes whose bodies produce excessive levels of hormones. Such athletes can now be considered naturally doped – an oxymoron that betrays the illogic of the regulation.

Not only are the proposed regulations ambiguous – what is "the male range"? How is "functionality" determined? – but they are based on a selective reading of the science of sex and athletic performance. Despite a widespread belief that testosterone is the "one parameter" that determines athletic performance, the science is far more ambiguous. Writing in an academic paper published earlier this month, a team of researchers criticized the IOC's focus on testosterone, arguing: "The current scientific evidence, however, does not support the notion that endogenous testosterone levels confer athletic advantage in any straightforward or predictable way."

Like so many areas of decision making, the science of gender does not provide distinct lines that can make politics go away and render decision making straightforward. And gender is not the only such issue facing the IOC. The case of another South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius, who runs on artificial legs, has raised questions about the boundary between the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. . .
Read the rest here.

Note: About the image above, from The Guardian:
In the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Adolf Hitler wanted to show the world the supremacy of the Aryan race - and he needed German athletes to win. Ratjen, notable for her deep voice and her refusal to share the shower room with the other female athletes, was Germany's entry for the women's high jump. She came fourth. Britain's competitor, Dorothy Tyler, who won a silver medal, remembers her. "I had competed against Dora and I knew she was a man," she says. "You could tell by the voice and the build. But 'she' was far from the only athlete. You could tell because they would always go into the toilet to get changed. We'd go and stand on the seat of the next-door cubicle or look under the door to see if we could catch them." Tyler held the world record for the high jump, but when officials wrote to her telling her that Ratjen had broken it, she wrote back. "I said: 'She's not a woman, she's a man,'" she says. "They did some research and found 'her' serving as a waiter called Hermann, so I got my world record back again." Dora, who had been born Hermann Ratjen, had in fact been a member of the Hitler Youth and said that the Nazis had forced him to enter as a woman.


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