Mai Ratakonda offers this reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s recent recommendations on how to handle athletes whose sexual identity is called into question, such as Caster Semenya. Ratakonda is a second year law student at Columbia Law School, a staff member of the Columbia Law Review and received her B.A. from Georgetown University.
The International Olympic Committee just doesn’t know what to do with intersex athletes. The IOC convened a panel of medical experts to attempt to resolve the dilemma of whether athletes like Caster Semanya, who identify as female but have “male characteristics,” should be allowed to compete with other women. The experts’ recommendations last week stated that these intersex athletes should have their “disorders” diagnosed and treated on a case-by-case basis before the athletes are allowed to compete at all. These recommendations did not explicitly touch on the issue brought up most frequently since Caster Semanya’s case has been publicized- whether allowing intersex athletes to compete as females is fair to other female athletes.
A New York Times article reporting on the recommendation focused on the fairness issue. While making sure to present both sides of the fairness debate, the article, amazingly, did not question the labeling of intersexuality as a “disorder” or the recommendation for mandatory treatment. This implicit acceptance that those who are intersex are in some way mal-developed brushes aside years of debate and medical and lay activism advocating for intersexuality to be viewed, not as a disorder that must be treated, but as a biologically understandable, though statistically uncommon, condition.
This labeling of intersex people as abnormal and in need of corrective treatment may be a result of intersexuality recently being connected with, and internationally debated as, an athletic issue. The strong need for a prerequisite of fairness in the Olympics obscures more complex issues of intersexuality: the various levels of intersexuality, the fact that many labeled as intersex can lead healthy lives without any medical treatment, and what it means to be intersex from a psychological, sociological, or personal perspective. The focus on intersex as solely a medical issue, to be decided by medical experts, obscures these complexities as well.
Sympathy for female athletes who may never be able to physically reach the athletic condition of Semanya should not unreasonably or irrationally simplify the issue of intersexuality in how it is discussed, language used to describe it, and “remedies” offered to mitigate against any unfair results. Labeling a group as having a disorder will inevitably lead to exclusion and discrimination. This is not just an athletic issue, but a civil rights issue, and a gender justice issue. As international attention is currently focused on this issue as one of athletics, the IOC, as well as commentators, must be sensitive to the wider repercussions their treatment of Semanya and other intersex athletes will have on the future treatment of all intersex people.