Alex Blaze

Defining men and women at the Olympics

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 31, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Beijing, gender, intersex, muscle, Nazi, Olympics, testing, transgender, women

The NY Times is reporting that the Olympics in Beijing this summer will be testing female athletes to see if they're actually women or men posing as women:

Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have set up a sex-determination laboratory to evaluate "suspect" female athletes, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Sunday. The lab is similar to ones set up at previous Olympics in Sydney and Athens, and will draw on the resources of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital to evaluate an athlete's external appearance, hormones and genes.

This practice, in the history of the Olympics, has excluded more women than the men-posing-as-women it's caught (that number being a big ol' goose egg).

Despite the fact that there's no need for these tests, this sort of testing is more complicated than a simple test. As Monica Helms wrote about extensively, any standard, such as chromosomes, hormones, or genitalia has gaps, and through those gaps many women who've worked all their lives to be Olympic athletes may watch their dreams fall to oblivion.

Miriam at Feministing also points out that this test is sexist, considering that only women will be tested, not men, the assumption being that men are so much better at each and every sport that they'd be the ones to pose as women, not the other way around.

Even though there's no massive influx of men competing in women's categories, women's sports should be protected at the Olympics. I think we'd see a massive decrease in the number of women at the games if all the events were gender neutral, both due to the differing ways men build muscle and size and the rampant discrimination against women athletes from the governments of the countries they represent.

But besides the bias against women and intersex people, I think that the underlying insult to transgender and transsexual people often gets ignored in this discussion, that having a genetic background as one sex and living one's life as another automatically means that person is being deceitful. What if a person who doesn't pass the test, whatever the test is, actually is a woman, no matter what her body says? What if she's pre-op or non-op? Does that make her any less of a woman?

(For clarity's sake, my answer is "no.")

Personally, this whole testing thing sounds stupid considering they've never caught anyone posing as a woman to participate in the Olympics with the tests. The only person who's ever been caught cheating wasn't caught with testing, he just came out and told everyone 20 years later:

Despite decades of rigorous testing of women athletes, only one known case of gender cheating exists in the history of the modern Olympics -- and it was not uncovered by a sex-determination test.

In 1936, a German athlete named Dora Ratjen finished fourth in the women's high jump. Twenty years later, Ratjen disclosed that he was in fact Hermann Ratjen, and that the Nazis had forced him to compete as a woman.

In the end, since they're not testing every woman, just those who are "suspect," it's just going to be a tool used by sore losers to waste everyone's time and occasionally disqualify a trans or intersex athlete.


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Ugh. This is disgusting. This type of testing is based in old gender stereotypes and discrimination. Period.

While no one has been caught by the testing, the post leave out a critical point. When testing did become mandatory, several Soviet and Eastern European athletes who had shattered world records suddenly, at the height of their athletic powers, retired without any notice. The Press sisters are probably the most notable examples, but there are others.

While I certainly am sympathetic to actual medical issues relating to chromosones and such, the policy was instituted for a reason, and not mere homophobia/transphobia. The fact that men are waived from testing is a problem, but can you name an Olympic event where being a female in a men's event would be an advantage?

".......but can you name an Olympic event where being a female in a men's event would be an advantage?"

Anything involving driving or shooting ROTFLAMO

Actually, this Beijing testing is a huge step backwards for the Olympics movement, and I'm astonished that the IOC agreed to it. The fact is, there were growing protests in the 90s by athletes who were disgusted at the unscientific nature of a chromosome test as a basis for excluding certain athletes from competition. In 1999, the IOC was finally compelled to change their policy. They announced that they were suspending general testing for the 2000 Sydney Games. The suspension was kept through the 2004 Athens Games as well.

The IOC made this decision because of threats of boycotts by some athletes, and pressures by other athletic bodies who had decided the testing was ridiculous. The IOC retained the right to investigate the odd individual case, and that was OK with everybody.

During all the years of testing, going back into the Cold War, the tests never achieved what they were supposed to do, namely to keep "men masquerading as women" from competing and taking unfair advantage owing to their greater muscle and speed. Soviet athletes, like the Press sisters mentioned by chuck, were in fact suspected of steroids use as much as "gender irregularities." In East Germany, the criminal use of steroids in their Olympics program (it destroyed the lives and health of many of their star athletes) has been fully exposed by documentaries. I've written at length about this whole sorry chapter in Olympics history in my book "Lavender Locker Room."

So now we're back to square A, and I will not be surprised to see a whole new wave of protests by athletes.

Oh, and by the way, there are male athletes out there who couldn't pass a chromosome test either.
Why should women be targeted?

Patricia, I am certainly not an authority on this subject like you are, but I do think it makes sense not to test males. As I said before, what male Olympic event would being secretly female be an advantage? Men generally run, swim, row, flip, dive, serve, ect. faster, stronger, and higher than women. Why should we test men? Merely because we are testing the women?

"During all the years of testing, going back into the Cold War, the tests never achieved what they were supposed to do, namely to keep "men masquerading as women" from competing and taking unfair advantage owing to their greater muscle and speed."

How do we know this? Were there in fact men who beat the system and competed as women, despite the testing? I apologize if this was covered in your book, but I read it when it was new a few years ago and have forgotten if you mentioned it.

I do think the compromise-the testing of the suspicious case-was an acceptable solution, and am not happy with the blanket testing returning. The deterrant effect, if nothing else, makes it testing on suspicion warranted. Like I mentioned earlier, I can't beleive it mere coincidence that several star athletes retired at the height of their career when the testing arrived.

China is doing this contrary to the policies of the IOC. After 1999, a certain amount of accommodation was to have been made for trans and intersex athletes to participate without the witch-huntery. This had cleared the way for athletes like Kristen Worley (who didn't go this year because she missed the qualifying competitions while in mourning) to compete.

Curtis at OII has already issued a strong protest, and more need to join suit.

Thanks for writing about this, Alex. I've been away from the 'puter too much

"the differing ways men build muscle and size"

I'm not an expert on anatomy, but... why test sex if a difference in muscle and size is what they're really trying to determine? Why don't they test muscle and size and divide by those categories? Would that distract from the spirit of the Olympics? You could have Lightweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight. Or would putting women and men in the same contest be sexist?

The fact is, most of the women athletes who flunked the IOC test were cases (like Spain's Maria Patino) of Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. In CAIS, you have the phenotype of a "normal" woman, but your chromosomes are XY, however there is a DNA bit missing that turns on androgen activity in the embryo. With androgens missing, the otherwise XY individual develops as the default gender, which is female...except that, inside the body, most of the female reproductive apparatus (ovaries, etc.) is missing. So XY women don't have menstrual cycles. In young women athletes who have come up through age-group competition, this is noticed, but it's usually attributed to the normal amenorrhea (temporary cessation of menses) that happens with women who maintain extreme fitness for top competition levels. Often women have no idea they are cases of CAIS until they finally flunk a test somewhere.

Like I said, these women are built like what we'd consider "normal women," meaning that they aren't identifiable as "physically masculine," or endowed with extraordinary musculature...the kind we'd associate with masculine dominance in certain events.

The presence of CAIS in the women's sporting world is precisely why so many athletes are opposed to the testing. When Maria Patino was booted out of the Olympics, she successfully sued the IOC to recover her right to compete. Women athletes born with CAIS clearly have no advantage over other sportswomen, when it comes to their physical attributes. So why make it impossible for them to compete? CAIS is at the heart of the arguments for those who consider the testing ridiculous, unjust and oppressive...an unscientific and unreliable way of imposing outmoded and traditional definitions of "gender" on sports.

From what I've read so far, it appears that the IOC has not approved the Chinese decision to test, and I'm surprised that there hasn't been some uproar over this.

It's important to remember that gender testing has always had its political agenda. It's always about the medal count! The Chinese have been preparing for this, so they will have made damn sure that everybody in their team can pass the test...whereas other countries have been selecting their teams thinking that 1999 IOC policy on testing will prevail. If the Chinese can knock some other countries' medal prospects out of the lineup with the tests, it will increase their chances of piling up medals.

While no one has been caught by the testing, the post leave out a critical point. When testing did become mandatory, several Soviet and Eastern European athletes who had shattered world records suddenly, at the height of their athletic powers, retired without any notice. The Press sisters are probably the most notable examples, but there are others.

That was the first thing I thought of too, Chuck.

"While no one has been caught by the testing..."

Goodness gracious, many hundreds of athletes have been caught over the years, and the careers of quite a few dozen prominent athletes were destroyed as a result, complete with the public disgrace, stripping of past medals won, etc. etc. At the 1992 Winter Olympics alone, where they started using the PCR test instead of the Barr body test, around 500 athletes flunked the test. Probably most of them had no idea they'd been born with the kind of chromosomal irregularities that the test revealed, hence they had no intention of deceiving anyone. With this many people flunking the test, there was little deterrent effect, for the simple reason that West civilization had little scientific notion of what the real complexities of "gender" was at that time.

This is what I meant by my statement about "men masquerading as women." To my knowledge, only one athlete in Olympics history was discovered to be an actual full-bodied "normal" XY man who deliberately committed gender fraud and competed in disguise in the women's division. That was a German athlete who did it in the 1930s, and admitted to it many years later. Yet during the Cold War, the U.S. and some other countries had the paranoia that the communist countries were sending men in disguise to compete at women. Hence the lobbying for the IOC to establish the test.

Whatever "deterrent" effect the testing may have had only fueled the impetus that steroid use had during those years.