athletes and the gender binary

“Women began participating in Olympic competitions in 1900. Given emerging fears that some athletes in women’s competitions were too ‘‘masculine’’ to be female, international sports governing bodies implemented procedures to ensure that all participants were indeed female.” Cheryl Cooky and Shari L. Dworkin examine the history of gender verification in sports. 


Cheryl Cooky and Shari L. Dworkin’s 2013 paper, “Policing the Boundaries of Sex: A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and the Caster Semenya Controversy

History of Sex Testing/Gender Verification in Sport

Women began participating in Olympic competitions in 1900. Given that the institution of sport is largely sex segregated, and given emerging fears that some athletes in women’s competitions were too ‘‘masculine’’ to be female, international sports governing bodies such as the IOC implemented procedures to ensure that all participants were indeed female. Female athletes were first subjected to a nude parade in front of a panel of doctors whose job it was to verify the sex of the competitors (Cahn, 1994; Cole, 2000; Ljungqvist et al., 2006; Puffer, 2002). This was said to be highly invasive, embarrassing, and humiliating to athletes. The IOC instituted mandatory sex testing in women’s sport in 1968 and ended the mandatory aspect of the policy in 1998 (Elias et al., 2000; Ljungqvist et al., 2006). The IOC and other international sports bodies, such as the International Amateur Athletic Federation, implemented various versions of ‘‘gender verification’’ policies or monitoring policies regarding eligibility in female athletic competitions.

… What became evident was that the way in which sport organizations measured or ascertained the sex of female athletes often failed to account for (or was unable to account for) the complexity in various chromosomal and genetic variations that exist.

… While the IOC discontinued mandatory sex testing in the 2000 Olympic Games, they continued to retain the right to test athletes in cases deemed ‘‘suspicious,’’ whereby the gender identity of an athlete was called into question (Buzuvis, 2010; Cavanaugh & Sykes, 2006; Wackwitz, 2003).

…Yet sport organizations continue to police the boundaries of sex through sex testing and the segregation of sports by sex, and the policies in place ostensibly are there to ‘‘ensure’’ that participants of men’s competitions are male, and women’s competitions are female. Indeed, the IAAF’s 2011 policy contains a key principle of maintaining ‘‘a respect for the very essence of the male and female classifications in Athletics’’ and thus illustrates how reaffirming the sex binary is central to sex testing policies.

Cooky, Cheryl, and Shari L. Dworkin. “Policing the boundaries of sex: A critical examination of gender verification and the Caster Semenya controversy.” Journal of Sex Research 50.2 (2013): 103-111.

Read the full paper here.

Featured Image: Middleton Sports Club

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