What if we lived in a world without laws. Robbery, rape, assault, bribery, just to name a few, would reduce society to nothing more than a piece of land. In the same way that a functional society could collapse immediately without rules, the Olympics could be destroyed if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) fails to find a plausible solution to gender verification.
The IOC and other sports organizations have implemented sex testing since the 1960s. There were some instances that caused a public outcry, for example when female athletes had to take gynecological exams to prove their sex at the Commonwealth Games in 1966. Or in 1967 when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) used a simpler laboratory-based chromosome assessment that would end a women’s career if the test didn’t produce an XX result. Or when Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was dismissed from sport in 1967 because she failed the sex test. The IOC and IAAF faced a lot of criticism because the public questioned the validity and reliability of the tests. Intensifying pressure from the public and exorbitant administration costs resulted in the IOC to finally put an end to these tests, but with one exception – the two organizations had the right to conduct the test if there was any suspicion of a female athletes’ “femaleness”. But what does it mean to be female?
The social justice warriors purport a socially constructed orthodoxy, whereby how you identify with a gender takes the place of the biological nature of an individual’s sex. Alternatively, the scientists claim that to be female is to have an XX chromosome, testosterone level at around 8-60 ng/dL (men have a level around >or= 240-950 ng/dL), female genitals, and so on. The IOC seems to be flirting between the two versions of “femaleness”, as the most recent victim of their sloppiness was Caster Semenya.
Caster Semenya, a South African woman who bears the scars of a flawed Olympic system lives in infamy without a clear understanding of the IOC’s rules and motivations. In the 2009 world track and field championships in Berlin, an 18 year old Semenya made her competition look comical, winning the 800 meter run by almost two and a half seconds and clocking the fastest time of the year. This sparked an outrage from her competitors as many believed she was not allowed to compete with other women. After the world championships, the IOC conducted gender verification tests which revealed she had internal testes and no ovaries or uterus, and high levels of testosterone. In other words, Semenya was intersex. Semenya’s mother responded by saying “Caster is a girl. Her birth certificate says she is a girl”. This seems to be the popular response for parents of intersex individuals as a large chunk of them live their lives not knowing they are intersex only until tested. Semenya’s intersex proclivities manifested because sport is one of the best domain’s which easily reveals the biological, anatomical differences between men and women. I don’t know how to wrap my mind around this uncanny proposition, perhaps we can start by figuring out where intersex athletes belong in the Olympics.
I suspect the answer to this question is largely influenced by how we define “femaleness” as outlined above. I believe science is the way forward, but that’s not to say intersex athletes should be excluded from competition just because they don’t posses the biological characteristics of a female. There needs to be strict rules qualifying intersex athletes because that’s what forms a functional Olympic system – a system that rewards athletes for athletic achievement instead of higher testosterone privileges (in the case of intersex athletes). Earlier this year, the IAAF and IOC decided to impose new rules which require female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels to bring it down to the normal range for females of .5nmol/L to 3nmol/L. This is a good start, although this was implemented in 2012 but later dismissed after Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand challenged the rules in 2014. The International Court of Arbitration insisted that the IOC provide scientific evidence to prove higher levels of testosterone in intersex athletes resulted in better levels of athletic performance, and it’s for this reason why it took nearly four years for the IOC and IAAF to finally put an end to the preposterous celebration of glory of intersex athletes such as Caster Semenya. I’m afraid it’s premature to presume that only lowering testosterone levels would eliminate superior athletic advantages. The Boston University School of Medicine found that some females couldn’t reduce their testosterone levels because some females had a different physiologic response to treatment. Furthermore, there are other scholars who claim muscle mass, muscle density, and so on would still be advantageous despite endocrine treatment.
No doubt strict rules are essential to the success of Olympics. The problem is, rules are only as good as how knowledgeable the organization is. I feel skeptical about how the Olympics will carry this forward. This is a very difficult proposition to tackle, perhaps creating a new category for intersex athletes will be the way to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not sure, let’s see what happens.
By Vinu Selvaratnam
The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent any institution.