Sexual “Disorder” and the Olympics

Posted on January 26th, 2010 by Katherine Franke

MaiMai 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.


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  4. Mai

    A good article . You are right, treatment of Intersex is a human rights issue not a medical one. There are very few ways of being Intersex that have illness connected to them.

    Intersex is not a disorder or a condition. Intersex is physical differences in sex in the same way tallness is physical differences in height.

    Where tallness is seen as an acceptable advantage for people of all sexes in certain sports , differences in sex is , and always has been, unacceptable in all walks of life.

    If an Intersex person had a height advantage because of their Intersex would they likewise be banned? Then logically any person who had genetic differences that resulted in a height advantage should be subjected to corrective surgery or banned from competition.

    Every Olympian has a physical advantage of one sort or another. The average person cannot achieve Olympic status simply by dilligent application. If Intersex need to be handicaped out by way of surgery then how about handicapping everyone. A level playing field where every human alive has an equal chance at winning gold.

    The IOC continues to pathologise us and normalise us in the same way medicine has done since Herculine Barbin was assigned in 1837.

    We do not have Intersexuality we are Intersex.

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  6. Interesting post. This is a very troubling issue and I am not sure that it will ever truly be resolved.

  7. This is a very good article. Thank you for helping others understand intersex issues.

    Kind regards,

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  10. Great article! I have written a petition protesting this kind of discrimination, for anyone who is interested.

  11. I think it would be unfair on other women if such women with male characteristics are allowed to take part in women’s events.

    All i say is let women compete with women and men compete with men.


  12. Thanks for the post Mai. It appears that there have been very few cases like Caster Semenya’s. So when she arrived, I believe the Olympics was caught off guard as to how to handle the situation. However, they should have some familiarity of the people that will participate before the actual competitions to know how to proceed. She did appear to be more bodily advanced than her competitors.

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