Bioethics Forum Essay

Olympic Problems with Sex Testing

Ah, Beijing, where men are men and women are… women until proven otherwise. As reported in the New York Times, “Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have set up a sex-determination laboratory to evaluate ‘suspect’ female athletes.” According to the Times, “only athletes whose gender has been questioned will be tested in Beijing.” This approach betrays fuzzy-headed thinking of – well, of Olympic proportions. So I’m laying out here my questions to the Olympic officials involved in this business, in the hopes someone on the inside will send them along.

But first, let’s get the language straight. These are not gender tests, they’re sex tests. The officials don’t need to test for gender, since gender is about social role and self-identification. And the concern of the Olympic testers is not social role or self-identification, it’s biology. They’re concerned that some women athletes might “really” have “male” anatomy that would give them an unfair advantage. So, here’s what I would like to know from those charged with sex policing for the Olympics:

1. If you’re so worried about some women athletes “really” being male, why not test all women athletes? Not doing blanket testing seems to allow sex-suspicion to be used as a way to psychologically undermine opponents. Can you imagine if, as you’re competing, you’re worried about whether winning also means having Olympic officials declare you a man? (“Hey, girlfriend, if you dare to pull ahead me, you’ll be facing a sex test.”) If you know anything about what happened to the Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez Patino, you’d be sensible to worry. She never saw coming the claim that she was a man – nor should she have, since she wasn’t a man, as Olympic officials figured out after they had made her life a living hell.

2. If you think that naturally having, say, a higher level of androgens (“masculinizing” hormones) gives a woman athlete an unfair advantage, why not also declare athletes who naturally have stronger immune systems to also have an unfair advantage? Might you also consider testing and disqualifying those athletes who process oxygen especially well? Perhaps only allowing clones would solve this problem.

3. How exactly do you plan to decide who does and doesn’t count as a female? Could you please state your criteria at the outset so that athletes at least know there is a clear and consistent policy, one which could then be open to scientific criticism? Okay, the New York Times reports that the evaluation will take into account “an athlete’s external appearance, hormones and genes.” But let’s break these down:

external appearance: I presume here you’re referring to genital anatomy, since you surely know from gymnastics that flat-chestedness is not a good diagnostic criteria for sex. So, could you specify how long a clitoris has to be before it arouses suspicion? And are you aware that clitoral length naturally varies substantially in women? Maybe you should just re-run the Olympics the way the original ran: naked. Then we’d all get to decide who counts as what, and we’d get also a good education in how much sex anatomy varies. (Plus, I admit, I might be more inclined to watch the games, especially the men’s high jump.)

hormones: Males and females, as you know, both produce androgens (the hormones with which you are concerned); the average female just has less coursing through her body than the average male. So tell us: Where exactly do you plan to socially construct the line of sex appropriateness in terms of androgens? And will you be hormone-testing men athletes to make sure those men who naturally produce far more androgens than their peers are disqualified for being too androgenized to compete in their class?

genes: Well, at least you’re no longer talking about “sex chromosomes.” So you’ve figured out, I guess, that a person with XX chromosomes can essentially develop as a male (as happens if the SRY gene is translocated onto an X), and that a person with XY chromosomes can essentially develop as a female (for example, if she has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). But what exactly do you think looking at the genes is going to tell you that will disqualify a woman?

4. If women aren’t allowed to be naturally too strong, how about sex-testing male athletes for being too graceful in sports where grace counts? I’m thinking diving. And figure-skating. If a diver or figure-skater who is a man seems a little too graceful, why not sex-test him to see if he’s really a female? That way we can be sure to really police gender in the name of sport.

5. When are you going to figure out you can’t fool Mother Nature? You keep trying to catch her and stick all of her offspring into one of two simplistic categories. But she’s just more tolerant than you of sex variation.

Give it up, boys. Just let the girls play already. Sex-testing isn’t the sport we came to watch.

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