Laurie Toby Edison

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Olympic Committee: You Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls

Laurie and Debbie say:

Violet Blue is disturbed, as are we, by the news that the Olympic Council of Asia will be conducting gender tests on women (but not men) in the competition. The criterion for being tested is “looking suspicious.” Blue says:

You know, because we’re sneaky like that. We could, like, totally kick your ass at the pole-vault competition with more experience than a girl should probably have with a pole in China, and no one likes that.

In this context, women are being singled out as “suspects,” “gender cheats,” “getting caught,” “being abnormal” and “failing” to be female, and judged by a parade of endocrinologists, gynecologists, a geneticist and a psychologist.

In the links embedded in her column, Blue provides a lot of history: The Olympics have been struggling with the question of “proving” gender since the 1960s, when Ewar Kobukkowska of Poland, who won a bronze medal for the 100-meter sprint and was a member of a 4-person gold-medal winning relay team, failed an early form chromosome test in 1967. Although she was later found to have a rare condition which had no effect on her athletic ability, she was barred from further Olympic and professional sports.

In 1996, when the tests were much more advanced, eight female athletes showed up as male on the tests but were “cleared” later. And just two years ago, Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan won the silver medal in the 800 meters track event at the Asian Games in Qatar, and later failed a gender test and lost her medal.

Because of these experiences, and many others,

The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science.

“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of the testing.

In 1999, Ljungqvist helped abolish the blanket testing of women, but international competitions have continued to rely on sex-verification tests in isolated instances.

Blue also quotes John Fox, senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynecology at the Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, as stating in 1992, ‘Personal experience of several such athletes suggests that the psychological impact of failing the test, interpreted as implying they are male, is so damaging that they seek instant anonymity and disappear without trace.’ How many fall into this category? Well, the 1992 article suggested as many as 1 in 400 female athletes fail to pass the tests, and other sources are similar, putting the ‘fail’ rate at 1 in 500 or 1 in 600 athletes. That’s a lot of women being disqualified from competition because they are not ‘feminine’ enough by pseudo-scientific tests which 30-plus years of experience have shown don’t work.”

Blue is focusing on two things: one is the hypocritical Chinese attitude on sex (she doesn’t mention the hypocritical Western attitude on sex, however) and the other is the inequity of testing women to make sure they’re not men, while not testing men to make sure they’re not women. Both of these are valuable points.

Leaving aside the Chinese testing, don’t you think it’s fascinating that the International Olympic Committee, hardly a radical gender group, has decided that it’s impossible to prove someone’s gender? In a worldview that has been in place for centuries, if not millennia, sports are an area in which gender is of paramount importance, in which you are supposed to be able to say “The men’s record in this event is X seconds and the women’s record in this sport is Y seconds,” where Y is almost always smaller than X. A place where gender matters. Gender is a defining characteristic anywhere in the world: any hospital outside of a gender clinic, any school, any job, any landlord will need to know your gender right off the bat.

Nonetheless the best scientific minds in the sports world have thrown up their hands and said, “No. We don’t know. We can’t tell. And we can’t help but see the pain it causes people if we pretend we can tell.” China may be behind the times; the International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, may just be so far ahead of it’s time that people are just now beginning to notice.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.

3 Responses to “Olympic Committee: You Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls”

  1. Limor says:

    Society so wrapped up in the notion that gender is binary, and there are only men and women. It would be nice if we just got over it.

  2. Ducky says:

    Thank you for the brilliant post. This is a fascinating topic. The amount of things we think we know but actually don’t is staggering.

  3. Tracee Sioux says:

    These are actually blood tests?

    You’re not girl enough? Yeah, I can see where that would be horrible.

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