A July 26 article in The Daily Beast discussed the possibility of world-record holding South African 800M runner Caster Semenya being disqualified from the Olympic games due to antiquated assumptions about gender and athletics.
The International Olympic Committee has employed various methods to test the gender of women whom they assume are too successful in their sports to be “real” women. In the 1960s, they IOC forced these women to march in “nude parades,” where they marched naked in front of a panel of judges who determined whether or not they appeared female enough to compete. These methods have generally been proven unsuccessful, yet rather than abandon them, the committee continues to come up with dubious ways to determine a woman’s gender. Their current approach is to test the amount of testosterone that naturally occurs in a woman’s body (note: synthetic testosterone, which may be taken as a performance enhancer, is easy to test for. These tests are not looking for synthetic testosterone). The Times of India reported this week that Santhi Soundarajan, the Indian 800M runner whose 2006 silver medal was revoked after a gender test, currently works in a brick kiln, earning 200 rupees (about $3.50) a day.
High levels of testosterone are not uncommon in women, athletes or not. The proportion of women with higher than average testosterone may even be rising, according to neuropath Beau Patrick, due to the high-stress nature of the society in which we currently live. High testosterone levels in woman are often associated with athletic prowess in medical literature, indicating that women who make it to the Olympic games are more likely than others to have this hormone imbalance in the first place. Nevertheless, the IOC only submits women to this degrading process who do not seem to fit with the societal ideal of femininity (read: white and thin). Further, men who excel in sports such as ice skating and synchronized swimming are never forced to undergo tests to determine their masculinity.
According to socio-medical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young, the IOC’s gender policies are “based more on folklore than precise science.” Little information is available on the prevalence of high testosterone in women or the precise benefits and risks of this hormone imbalance. Jordan-Young noted in a paper she co-authored with Katrina Karkazis of Stanford’s Center for Biomedical Ethics that women who are unable to process androgens, including testosterone, also excel in athletics. Further, the hormone therapies that women are forced to undergo in order to compete may cause undue health risks in women who are otherwise healthy (they are olympians, after all!). The Daily Beast notes that studies have found hormone replacement therapies to be associated with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, strokes, and heart attacks.
Caster Semenya carried the flag for her native South Africa in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies. Commentators remarked that she might not be able to compete due to the results of her gender tests. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could simply celebrate her success as a world-record holder and cheer her on? Sign this petition if you would like the IOC to join us in the 21st century!