On April 5 the International Olympic Committee released new rules for determining whether or not women who have higher than usual levels of naturally produced testosterone will be eligible to compete in women’s sports. Though the IOC denies it, it seems likely that this clarification is motivated by the embarrassing and shameful handling of the challenge to South African runner, Caster Semenya, two years ago at the World Championships.
The new rules, which will be in place for the London Olympics in 2012, state that a “panel of independent medical experts” will examine any woman found through a blood test to have “hyperandrogenism” and then make a recommendation about whether she should be eligible to compete. These situations will be handled on a case by case basis and the athlete will be referred to “specialist medical centers around the world” where they will be checked to see if they have any conditions that are a health risk that need treatment.
This process will be triggered in three ways: an athlete can request an “evaluation.” (Pause). I am trying to imagine a woman stopping by her nearest “specialized medical center” to ask, “Can you tell me if I am a woman or not? I can run so fast, I’ve begun to question” The second trigger is if during routine urine testing for performance enhancing drugs, the required observer notices that the athlete has “male characteristics.” This would be a penis, I assume. The third trigger is that drug testing results reveal “abnormal” testosterone levels. One good thing about these new rules is that it will no longer be possible for competitors to trigger an investigation on the basis of their perception that a woman is “too” masculine in appearance or performance. The IOC promises “strict confidentiality” for this process.
If the athlete is ruled ineligible, she would be informed of what “conditions she needs to meet in order to return to competition.” Presumably this could include forcing the athlete to take some kind of drug that suppresses her natural level of testosterone. (How can that be normal?) Athletes who are ruled ineligible for competition as women will also be ineligible to compete with men effectively banishing them to a “third sex freak” category athletically.
There is no question that determining sex is a very complicated process. The IOC is determined to draw a line that separates the men from the women for the purposes of determining athletic eligibility when most medical experts who specialize in this area agree that drawing a hard and fast line is pretty tricky.
The IOC claims that their focus on drawing this line separating men from women is about insuring a “level competitive playing field.” However, as Alice Dreger points out, far more eloquently than I can, the IOC only seems concerned about level playing fields for women only. Their new rule is inherently sexist. No one on the IOC medical panel seems at all concerned about male athletes with “abnormally” high testosterone levels having an unfair advantage over their less “manly” competitors. The IOC seems only concerned about policing women’s bodies and insuring that only “normal” women are allowed to compete. Of course, they get to decide who is normal.
Will we next rule ineligible women who are “too” tall, or have “abnormal” oxygen update capacities or “too many” fast twitch muscle fibers? Once we start excluding women athletes based on their naturally occurring physiological differences and labeling those who have exceptional capacities “not normal,” where does it end?
I am especially concerned that this policy could be adopted by college and high school athletic governing organizations. Policies that stigmatize girls or women with exceptional natural physical characteristics or athletic abilities as abnormal will not promote inclusion, fairness or excellence in women’s sports and will only serve to perpetuate the belief that only some women athletes, those deemed “normal” by arbitrary social standards, are welcome.