The Olympics tries to verify athletes are “real women”

This story in the NYTimes definitely brings up some interesting debates in the gender and sports arena. Basically the Olympics has a shady history of trying to verify female athletes gender identity. This ranges from forcing the athletes to strip naked and inspected by judges to other varied tests including chromosomal typing and hormone testing.

At first, women were asked to parade nude before a panel of doctors to verify their sex. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.

For a period of time these tests were mandatory for female athletes (not male ones). The NYTimes article suggests it was due to fears that male athletes would pose as female athletes and have an unfair advantage over their competitors. It seems this has only actually happened once, however, and it was not discovered with any of these tests. For this years Olympic games, a lab is being set up in Beijing that is prepared to investigate any gender-based claims if they arise, as they no longer require these exams of all female athletes.

There are some many issues with this, I don’t really know where to begin. First off there is the sexism behind a practice which only targeted female athletes. Not only is it unfair, it borders on sexual harassment to require these women to parade naked in front of anyone. Disgusting.
Second, there is the sexist assumption underlying this that men are inherently better at sports than women (an idea that many, including me, would argue against) such that someone might try to sneak into the women’s competition to have an advantage. I think athletic ability varies based on a lot of factors and it is overly simplistic to assume gender will be such a strong determinant.
Third is the idea that gender or sex can be conclusively proven. They hint at this in the NYTimes piece and talk about the different means they have used over the years to test these athletes gender. One of the strongest arguments against the gender binary comes from the varying (and difficult to pin down) definition of what constitutes a man and what constitutes a woman. When pressed for a definition, some people say genitalia, others chromosomes, others the ability to bear children and others hormone levels. For all of these there are examples that can be given for exceptions to the rule: infertile women, genital variances, intersex people, varying hormone levels, etc.

Although the verification test has changed to adapt to new scientific understandings about gender — athletes are now evaluated by an endocrinologist, gynecologist, a geneticist and a psychologist — critics say the test is based on the false idea that someone’s sex is a cut-and-dried issue.”It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine. Because of a range of genetic conditions, people who look like women may have a Y chromosome, while people who look like men may not, she said. Many times, the people do not learn of the defects until they reach adulthood. “It gets really complicated very quickly,” McGinn said.

As people (and science’s) understanding of the complexities of gender (and perhaps the validity of a spectrum framework rather than a binary one) increase, we will continue to have to adapt our gendered practices. What could this mean? An end to gendered sports? Despite my feelings about the gender binary, women’s sports have played a pretty big (and satisfying) role in my life.
What do you all think?

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