Ideals of femininity have always been an issue when women are linked with sports. Obviously this is the case, or Lydia and I wouldn’t feel the need to write this blog; in reality, the number of gender-based issues regarding sports is so large, that we often don’t cover everything that comes up. It can be an interesting challenge sifting through my Google News special section on women’s sports, trying to pull out the articles that truly demonstrate the problems that still surround women in sports, even forty years post-Title IX. Not every country has a Title IX; not every woman is afforded the athletic opportunities she deserves as an equal citizen of whatever country in which she resides. But even for those that, despite this tough barrier, make it to the elite levels, there are still high-ranking officials who wish to thwart their success. Many of these officials happen to belong to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Their short-sighted policy decisions, made with the outward disguise of “protecting women”, leave me angry and confused. It is one of these policies that had me furious yesterday, fueled by an excellent opinion piece in the New York Times by Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karzakis.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF – the world-governing body for track and field) recently adopted a policy that a woman cannot compete in track and field sports if she has too much testosterone. From Jezebel, we learned that the reasoning behind this decision stemmed from Caster Semenya, who won an 800-meter world championship and was immediately called out by others because she looked too much like a man. Now the IAAF is requiring that women’s testosterone levels must not “exceed the male threshold.” Women like Semenya will have to either have surgery or receive hormone therapy from an IAAF expert medical panel if they want to compete. The IAAF working group on Hyperangrogenism and Sex Reassignment in Female Athletics has decided it is an unfair advantage that these women happen to have a higher level of testosterone. Semenya has been getting treatment, and apparently, now that she has a more feminine body, the critics are leaving her alone.
The IOC, in its infinite wisdom, is considering joining the IAAF in this preposterous decision. In the 1960s, Olympic female athletes were forced to walk naked in front of a panel of experts to decide whether they were actually female. This was abandoned and gender verification was done using chromosome tests, until the IOC called for their discontinuation in the late 1990s, arguing that the tests constituted an invasion of privacy. Now, the IOC is putting in place similar restrictions as the IAAF for the Olympic games, and will likely soon mandate maximum testosterone thresholds as well. Jordan-Young & Karzakis outline in their piece how shortsighted this is: not only is testosterone not the “master molecule of athleticism”, but also, they state that there is “no evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones . . . . There is just too much variation in how bodies make and respond to testosterone — and testosterone is but one element of an athlete’s physiology.”
Jordan-Young & Karzakis also hit on the aspect of this policy that I find most jarring: the gender-bashing and discrimination it continues to support. By adopting this policy, the IOC is legitimizing a Salem Witch-style accusatory game of pointing fingers at those who look different from our normalized female ideals.
Policing women’s testosterone would exacerbate one of the ugliest tendencies in women’s sports today: the name-calling and the insinuations that an athlete is “too masculine,” or worse, that she is a man. (Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia recently said that she lost at the French Open because her opponent “played like a man.” Such comments do not do female athletes any favors.)
Sex testing of female athletes will always be discriminatory. Under the new policy, men will most likely continue to enjoy freedom from scrutiny, even though they, too, have greatly varying testosterone levels, along with other variations in natural attributes that affect athletic performance.
Sex tests are based on the notion that fair competition requires “protecting” female athletes. Protection has been the cloak that covers all manner of sex discrimination, and it is seldom, if ever, the best way to advance equality.
As the authors state, no one ever suggests that we have to test men to make sure they are maintaining adequate levels of testosterone. By adopting this rule, the IOC and IAAF are once again putting forth a double standard that does nothing except continue to marginalize women under the guise of protection. No woman should have to endure unnecessary surgery or hormone treatment just to compete in a sport she happens to be very, very good at performing. If you say you are a woman, that should be enough to allow you to compete. Besides, with all of the gender-bashing, woman-hating political decisions, and legislating over women’s bodies happening recently, who would honestly choose to compete as a woman other than someone who truly identified as such?