going beyond gender as a way of organising sports

In 2009, there was a public outcry when star athlete Caster Semenya was forced to undergo gender verification testing to prove she was female. Academics Cooky and Dworkin argue that gender verification tests are motivated by sexist, outdated ideas about the need to separate male and female athletes. They question whether it is necessary to segregate athletes by gender. They argue that sports competitions should be based on the abilities of individuals who seek to play, and not on stereotypical attributes.

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

Is sex segregation necessary in sports?

While biology and the need for ensuring fair play through sex segregation are often cited as the reason for differences in women’s and men’s athletic performances, numerous sport and gender scholars have challenged this logic (Cahn, 1994; Cavanaugh & Sykes, 2006; Cole, 2000; Kane, 1995; Lenskyj, 1986; Ritchie, 2003; Ritchie et al., 2008). Historically, women have been purposefully excluded from competing with or against men. When women were given the opportunity and excelled against men in direct competition, they were subsequently banned from sport (for a discussion, see Dworkin & Cooky, 2012; Cahn, 1994).

Examples of women restricted from direct competition with men are abundant, particularly in the Olympics and international competitions. Women were not allowed to compete in marathon events in the United States until 1965, and it was not until the 1984 Olympics that the marathon was added to the women’s Olympic Games events; medical experts deemed women too frail and vulnerable to reproductive problems should they compete in endurance events (Cahn, 1994; Vertinsky, 1994). Numerous contemporary examples of sex discrimination in sport also exist; for example, in 2010, despite protests, women’s ski jumping was not added to the Olympics even though the numbers of women in the sport had risen dramatically (Travers, 2011). Thus, assumptions of female inferiority and frailty frequently underlie the decision to keep sport sex segregated (Dworkin & Wachs, 2009; McDonagh & Pappano, 2007; Messner, 2002).

Gender is not the only biological source of unfairness – so why single it out? 

If monitoring genetically conferred advantage to ensure a level playing field was the primary basis for ensuring fair play, as the IOC and the IAAF claim, athletes would not simply be tested for sex; sport organizations would also test for ‘‘performance enhancing genes that predispose them to be athletically superior’’ by improving muscle growth and efficiency as well as blood flow to skeletal muscles (Vilain & Sa ´nchez, 2012). Sport governing bodies would also test for other conditions that may predispose athletes to be athletically superior. For example, several basketball players have acromegaly, which is a condition responsible for excessive tallness, a clear advantage in basketball (Zaccone, 2010). Female volleyball players have been found to have Marfan syndrome, a disorder that contributes to their unusually tall height, an advantage in that sport. Endurance skier, Eero Ma ¨ntyranta, has primary familial and congenital polycythemia (PFCO), which causes high hemoglobin and increased oxygen capacity due to an inherited mutation in the erythropoietin receptor gene (EPOR) (Genel, 2010).

[… ] Thus, if Semenya did indeed have testosterone levels three times higher than the ‘‘average’’ woman (as many in the popular press claimed), and if this was due to natural variations in sex development and not doping (according to IAAF officials she tested negative for doping), then given the standards of fairness in sport this is a ‘‘natural’’ variation that should be tolerated. The fact that female athletes were sex tested for these variations is particularly egregious, given other ‘‘natural’’ variations and conditions, some of which confer advantages, are not monitored or deemed unfair by sport organizations.

[… ] Indeed, sport celebrates those individuals who exist on the extreme end of the biological, physical, and genetic spectrum of human diversity. Here we echo Vilain and Sa ´nchez (2012) who argued that ‘‘attempting to create a ‘level playing field’ among people with unique biological profiles may be a futile endeavor’’ (pp. 198–199).

By logical extension, should we also police the gender of male athletes?

Here, the belief among sport-governing bodies such as the IOC and the IAAF, as well as some biomedical experts, is that to allow male athletes to participate with women at elite levels would prove unfair because the male competitor will win most, if not all, competitions given their physical superiority (Vilain, 2012). In this way, sport-governing bodies reaffirm the belief that categorically all male athletes are better at sports when compared to female athletes (Cahn, 1994; Cavanaugh & Sykes, 2006; Cole, 2000; Kane, 1995). However, ‘‘athletic prowess is not simply a matter of genetics or a matter of biological sex’’ (Zaccone, 2010, p. 397). In the United States, there is legal precedent that sex is not and cannot be a proxy for ability in athletics (McDonagh & Pappano, 2007). Yet the belief in the categorical physical superiority of male athletes and the physical inferiority of female athletes continues despite social science and biomedical research and legal precedent that suggests otherwise (Dworkin & Cooky, 2012; Kane, 1995).

Given the overarching belief in natural male physical superiority and female inferiority, sex-testing policies target only female athletes. Despite the fact that sport requires powerful physical prowess, women are sex tested when they carry out an explosive athletic performance, have a high degree of musculature, or are perceived to be ‘‘too male.’’ If it is found that their testosterone levels are greater than those of a ‘‘normal woman,’’ this is said to confer unfair advantage to the other women in the field. Following the logic employed by sport-governing bodies, one question is: Why are men not also tested for hormonal, muscular, endocrine, or other genetic advantages relative to other men? […] Should ‘‘male athletes with elevated levels of androgens be forced to take androgen inhibitors?’’ (Vilain & Sa ´nchez, 2012, p. 198). 

[… ] The question as to why there is no parallel examination concerning what might make some men genetically or physiologically more competitive than other men has not been considered in the institution of sport. [… ] Instead, men’s superior performances relative to other men are attributed to ‘‘natural talent,’’ hard work, and dedication, and are celebrated and embraced.

Does testosterone make one a better athlete?

As Karkazis, Jordan-Young, Davis, and Camporesi (2012) discussed, ‘‘Despite the many assumptions about the relationship between testosterone and athletic advantage, there is no evidence showing that successful athletes had higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes’’ (p. 9).

Finally – Athletes should be organised based on ability, not gender

For example, rather than viewing sex segregation as necessary and ‘‘disorders of sex development’’ as a much-needed category that is used to ‘‘objectively’’ determine who is and is not a woman in sport, we argue the category of ‘‘sex’’ is not the only acceptable way to organize sport. Echoing Travers (2008), we argue that ‘‘all sports competitions should be based on the abilities of individuals who seek to play, not on stereotypical attributes’’ of sex (p. 93).

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: Chang W. Lee for NYT


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