Running Like A Girl: Sex-Stereotyping in the Olympics

Posted on January 31st, 2010 by Katherine Franke

As Mai Ratakonda noted in the previous post, last Wednesday the International Olympic Committee announced the recommendations of a panel of “experts” on the manner in which the Olympics should “handle” persons with “Disorders of Sexual Development.” They concluded that the IOC should approach female athletes whose sex has been questioned, treat them as having a medical disorder, and they will be referred to special clinics for diagnosis and treatment, or as they call it, “management.” The recommendations address Olympic athletes whose “true” sex is called into question because they deviate from a socially determined female norm. The meeting of experts was convened by the IOC in response to the Caster Semenya case. (An earlier blog post addressed Semenya.)

The recommendations raise a number of problems. First, it seems that for athletes who wish to compete in the female division and who have had their “sex” challenged, they will have to agree to examination and treatment in order to remain eligible. “Those who agree to be treated will be permitted to participate,” said Dr. Maria New, an IOC hired panel participant, an expert on sexual development disorders, and a controversial figure in the intersex world insofar as she has been a strong advocate for genital surgeries for babies born with “ambiguous genitalia.” “Those who do not agree to be treated on a case-by-case basis will not be permitted” to compete. Dr. New suggests that the best first step in identifying and treating athletes of questionable sex is that “photographs of [those] athletes [be sent] to experts like her. If the expert thinks the athlete might have a sexual-development disorder, the expert would order further testing and suggest treatment.”

Imagine, for a second, how this will work: a world-class athlete, such as Caster Semenya, will have her female credentials questioned by another athlete – likely someone who just lost to the athlete whose female-ness is being questioned. That athlete will then have to remove her shorts, have her genitals photographed, and then have those photos sent to Dr. New for review. Applying what seems like a “know it when you see it” standard of abnormality, Dr. New may then determine that the athlete be further tested and treated/managed for her “Disorders of Sexual Development” as a condition of further eligibility in IOC-sanctioned competition. This new procedure creates a climate whereby female athletes who run too fast, throw too far, or jump too high “for a woman” stand likely to have their sexual identity challenged, thereby exposing themselves to the humiliation of genital photography and the shameful suggestion that they are freaks. Look what happened to Caster Semenya and Santhi Soundarajan who endured a similar sexual inquisition and attempted suicide as a result to know where this is leading.

Second, as if the privacy and shaming of the IOC panel’s recommendations weren’t enough, this new approach to phelpspolicing the boundaries of women’s athletics smacks of sex discrimination. Many of the world’s top athletes have some physical “endowments” that explain, at least in part, their advantage over competitors. Take Michael Phelps, who won an amazing 8 gold medals in the last Olympics. Swimming fans are in awe of Phelps’ disproportionately large “wing span” (basically, really long arms), the fact that he is double jointed, and has huge feet. “His size-14 feet reportedly bend 15 degrees farther at the ankle than most other swimmers, turning his feet into virtual flippers. This flexibility also extends to his knees and elbows, possibly allowing him to get more out of each stroke,” wrote Scientific America in a special story on Phelps’ physical endowments. Phelps isn’t seen as having a joint or foot “disorder.” He isn’t forced to have pictures taken of his body that will be reviewed by medical experts who apply a loosey goosey standard to evaluate whether he needs treatment in order to make him more normal, and thereby allow him to continue competing. No, he’s just built for his sport in ways that give him enormous advantages over the average person. We stand in awe of him, not in judgment.

lance-armstrong-bikeOnly those endowments that are regarded as sex-related trigger an investigation into whether a female athlete is eligible for competition in a women’s division. But who’s to decide which are and which are not “sex-related”? Consider Lance Armstrong’s exceptionally large lung capacity and low heart rate which are looked to to account for his unbelievable success in biking (doping allegations aside). Not only are his physical advantages not treated as disqualifying, his body has been transformed into a lesson plan for high school biology classes. But maybe he should be referred to the sex police. Research shows that females demonstrate a somewhat different and better pattern of cardiac adaptation to exercise than do men, and as a result have better oxygen extraction by their working muscles due to greater capillarization and more mitochondria. So, in effect, Lance Armstrong’s body is more “feminized” as compared with the other male competitors. But you don’t see him getting called out for being insufficiently male and from having an unfair advantage over the other men in the Tour de France because his capacity to process oxygen is more typical of female than male athletes, do you? His endowments are not seen as sex-related, they’re just the envy of top cyclists. Hmmm.

So too, small male jockeys or petite male coxswains aren’t seen as cheaters (girly men competing in male sports) in the same way that Semenya was. Yet their light, lithe bodies are prized in their sports precisely because they are smaller than the average man. No sex police here.

Men, it seems, can compete under the influence of abnormal hormonal levels or other body functions so long as they use what “god gave them,” but women, it seems, may not. As Alice Dreger recently commented on the new recommendations:

That, then, raises the apparently unconsidered question of why athletes competing as women would be subject to such androgen-capping, while athletes competing as men are not (unless they dope). If we women naturally make all those same hormones – and we do – why do the guys get to keep all they naturally make, and we don’t?

Good question. And it raises a serious suggestion of sex discrimination in athletics.


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