Patricia Nell Warren

Gender Testing and "The Art of War"

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 07, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Beijing, Beijing Olympics, Olympic strategies, The Art of War

Outsports.com has just published a story that there are only six out athletes so far -- that we know of -- who are competing in Beijing. This figure is sharply down from the 11 who competed openly in Athens 2004 across a whole spectrum of sports from tennis to equestrian. Nobody knows for sure why this drop has happened -- Jim Buzinski of Outsports ponders a number of reasons. To that list, I would add that out athletes might have felt nervous about trying to compete openly in a country where gay activists and people with HIV are still harassed by the government, where waves of arrests have been going on for many months.

Elsewhere on the human rights front, it's also disappointing to see the Beijing Olympics organizers veering back into gender testing -- which was abandoned as a general policy in 1999 by the IOC.

The present IOC policy is for individuals to be tested if there is a serious question. The Chinese are exploiting this loophole for all it's worth, and their maneuver is not surprising. They are applying Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" to international sports in a classic way.

The Beijing government wants to win piles of medals and prove their superiority as an emerging world power. As the host country that sets policy for these Games, they have surely scoured their own women's team, to make 100 percent sure that all karyotypes conform to standard XX and will pass the test. However, their sudden late announcement that they will test any woman whose appearance raises a red flag is now going to place other countries at a psychological disadvantage. These countries have already selected their teams, and some of those selectees might not pass the test. So it will constitute a pre-competition strategy, a psychological pre-emptive strike, for Chinese authorities to announce that they will summon any woman athlete they choose for testing. There are surely some women athletes out there who never imagined, when they made their Olympic teams, that they might have to pass that dreaded test down the road. Even if that individual does pass the test, her psyche may be jarred and she may not perform as well. We have to imagine the woman's anxiety, through several days of waiting for test results.

Either way, a medal prospect who can be knocked out of competition by the gender test, or rattled enough to miss making the podium, will ensure more medals for the Chinese.

"The Art of War" was written 2500 years ago by a brilliant Chinese general named Sun Tzu, who probably lived during the Warring States period (403-221 BCE). It's a study of military strategy and realpolitik whose principles can be applied to any non-military situation, and it's one of the most influential pieces of thinking ever written. No matter who governed their country, whether emperors or communist leaders, the Chinese have never stopped living by "The Art of War." Western military leaders who flouted the principles noted by Sun Tzu (Hitler was one, when he invaded Russia) always went down in defeat. Any nation who goes up against China without doing their Sun Tzu homework is probably in for a shock, whether it's in war or free trade...or sports.

Sun Tzu wrote, "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night,
and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt." Sounds like the Olympic Games to me.


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Patricia, I was just talking to my mom about the gender testing the other day because she heard a story on NPR about it. She wanted to know why no one is testing the male athletes to find out if any of them are FTM. She guessed that the Chinese assume that an FTM wouldn't win anyway. What's your take on it?

Serena, this is the big question. Why not test Olympic men? When you start to analyze the cultural "reasoning" behind the testing, vis a vis the scientific reality of what we know about gender, it's clear that the whole thing doesn't hold water.

Supposedly the IOC started testing in the 1960s so that males in disguise couldn't compete in the women's division, taking advantage of their superior strength and muscles to win. Western countries were afraid that the Communist countries were sending "ringers" into women's competition. But the fact is -- gender testing never uncovered any real examples of male "ringers."

Another fact is -- the Communist countries weren't brainwashed by Western-type female stereotypes, so they had no problem sending some big brawny women competitors into (for example) the field events. Whereas in the U.S. our sports establishment were brainwashed about "femininity" and made sure that we selected "feminine" looking types as much as possible, to keep within the stereotype. Our feminine women went off to the Games and got their butts kicked by the brawny Communist women, and this didn't sit well during the Cold War. Something had to be done. So the brains came up with gender testing.

Were the tests successful at keeping "women" who are very "masculine appearing," with extra muscles and strength, from competing and having an unfair advantage? No. The Press sisters are always mentioned as an example of successful deterrent -- they stopped competing before the testing started at the Grenoble winter games. But nobody mentions the fact that the Press sisters, along with many other Communist athletes, were suspected of being kept on a steroids regime by their governments. This could account for their physical appearance. And even after the Press sisters left the scene, the big brawny Soviet women who passed the tests kept on beating the "feminine" Western women, especially in the field and sprint events. So the testing didn't achieve much of anything.

The fact is -- the sports establishment labors under some appallingly false stereotypes about females and gender. An example was Mozambique sprinter Maria Mutola, who was built big and muscular, a physique that will excel at sprinting, which is a fast-twitch exercise. Mutola was subjected to the crassest, cruelest kind of rumor-mongering about her gender, and was tested again and again, in an effort to get her out of competition...but she always came up a standard XX on the gender tests. Moral of the story: you can't assume that a "muscular woman" is somehow kinda "male."

Most of the women sidelined by the tests have been so-called "XY women," who were conceived with male chromosomes but who developed physically as females owing to a missing gene. These women are so "normally female looking" (i.e. not exceptionally strong and muscular) that they never suspect they are different till they're fingered by the test. So, for the three decades of Olympic gender testing, railroading these women out of competition achieved nothing in terms of protecting "fairness." The only thing that the tests achieved was destroying the careers of some very good XY women athletes.

So -- if the tests fail at keeping big muscular women off the playing fields, then why is the IOC still allowing testing?

How do we rationalize keeping this scientifically ridiculous procedure as some sort of sacred cow? Does testing send the between-the-lines message that we should only allow standard XX and XY people to compete in sports?

The fact is, there are plenty of male athletes out there who wouldn't come up with the standard XY on a gender test. For example, there are XYY men, and XXY men. Reasons could be found why these men should not be allowed to compete. Some hold the theory that XYY men are exceptionally aggressive, so it might be said that these men have an unfair psychological advantage over other men, hence they should be kept out of competition. Whereas XXY men tend to be slight and slender, a physique that tends to be found among males in equestrian events, where toting a lightweight rider is an advantage for the horse. So it might be said that XXY men should be eliminated in certain sports because their slight build gives them an unfair physical advantage.

For me, the bottom line is this: the testing is there because it presumably reinforces the centuries-old stereotype of what "feminine" is -- a stereotype that is cruelly at odds with what we know scientifically about gender in women. Meanwhile men are not tested at all, because of another stereotype, namely the assumption that merely competing in sports automatically makes them "masculine." And "masculine" is believed to equal the normal set of XY chromosomes.

Talk about unfair...

Besides...when was the playing field ever 100 percent level? You can't eliminate all the variables from sports, especially those related to physique. This is like saying that Bill Tilden should have been banned from tennis because he was taller than other men and had the ability to deliver those devastating serves from his extra inches. Implicit in gender testing is the terrifying idea that all athletes in a given sport should be clones.


I think there are several reasons to oppose gender testing, but "if they are so concerned, why don't they test the guys too" just seems like the least of them. I am still waiting for my question from the last post on this topic to be answered: There are plenty of sports in which being secretly male in the female division would be an advantage, but in what sport would being secretly female in a male sport be a competitive advantage? Men generally run, swim, jump, flip, and skate faster and higher than women. It seems that despite the logical problems gender testing presents, the argument to test only the women is a sound one.

"The Press sisters are always mentioned as an example of successful deterrent -- they stopped competing before the testing started at the Grenoble winter games. But nobody mentions the fact that the Press sisters, along with many other Communist athletes, were suspected of being kept on a steroids regime by their governments."

I also did a little reading on this subject after reading Patricia's earlier, wonderful comments on this matter. I learned that the Press sisters actually retired at the 1966 European Track and Field championships, which just so happened to be the debut of gender testing. While the fact that the Press sisters may have simply been dopers instead of gender imposters holds weight, we saw from the 1970's that the Communists figured out how to beat the drug tests. Perhaps the fact they couldn't beat the gender tests caused the "retirement." Regardless, something was rotten in Denmark, er Russia, with those two.

I also learned that one of the reasons the gender tests went out of fashion was a more practical one. With the new doping tests, athletes were called on at random to do immediate drug screens in the presence of the testers. Having to urinate in front of a stranger from your athletic federation made gender verification somewhat obsolete.

Regardless, I am intrigued about your theory regarding the Chinese seeking to game the system. I also find it somewhat ironic considering the scandal that seem to be brewing regarding the Chinese gymnasts, most of whom seem to have multiple birthdates and birth certificates that, if true, would make them too young for competition. I can't imagine the USOC wouldn't be ready for this battle to be fought.

This could be interesting.

I just want to throw in the aside that I wondered how long it would be before someone tied The Art of War together with the Olympics. PNW wins. :)

Patricia, did you like the book, personally? I did. I soaked quite a bit in (hopefully).

To Chuck: I thought I addressed your questions, but I'll try again.

Absolutely there are sports where a woman competing secretly in the men's division would take medals away from men. Not every sport is based on the type of muscular superiority that we associate with the male gender! And women are better than men at hand-eye dexterity. Archery, shooting, badminton, fencing and curling are examples of Olympic sports where you need hand-eye dexterity, rather than strength, to win. For all we know, there HAVE been female ringers in these events, that were never uncovered because nobody ever made an issue of it.

And yes, today you have to pee in a cup in front of an observer, so it's hard to sneak into the men's division without a man's observable genitals.

But bear in mind that if men were tested today, the presence of XXY individuals with the right genital equipment would be showing up. And that would stir up a firestorm of discussion on whether they are really "men," since they have two X chromosomes. So far, nobody wants to go there...it's a real can of worms. Because then the Olympics would have to discuss the presence of XYY men as well. If XYY and XXY men can compete, why can't XY women compete? If the IOC is going to open competition to individuals with variant configurations of sex chromosomes, they would have to do it for everybody.

To Bil: "Art of War" is on my personal shelf of best-loved classics. The best translation is by James Clavell, author of "Shogun." In his introduction Clavell tells how he was first made aware of the book by an Asia expert friend of his, during the Vietnam era, and when he read it, he was shocked into understanding why the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. We broke every rule in SSun Tzu's book. Clavell wonders why Sun Tzu isn't required reading for our President and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Any military expert who is familiar with Sun Tzu's tried-and-true principles probably feels that this is why the U.S. is getting our ass kicked in Iraq...and why we would be complete fools to invade Iran...and why we are losing any ground we gained in Afghanistan.

Thanks for the answers. You make a good point about the dexterity events. I seem to recall reading about the fencer in the 70's who had rigged his epee with a buzzer to make it seem like he got a hit when in fact he didn't. No one knows how long he did it, but his results showed a dramatic improvement at a fixed point. Even fencing is not immune from cheating, sad to say.

As always, I enjoy your writing and look forward to how this plays out.

Patricia, thanks for answering my question. I think you have really great points that make a lot of sense.