In 2009 South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya was
made to undergo a medical test to prove that she was female, after
her masculine looks and athletic prowess aroused suspicion
following her victory at the World Championships. Now 'cleared' and
free to compete in women's sport, we may wonder whether she ever
would have been subjected to such an intrusive and humiliating
ordeal had she looked more traditionally feminine.
In advance of the London Olympics which
starts this week, the International Olympic Committee, which
governs the event, has published new regulations on the
gender-testing of female athletes which would ban women from
competing in the games if the amount of testosterone in their
bodies exceeds a certain level.
According to the IOC high levels of androgens, of which
testosterone is one, in the female body can give the sportswoman in
question an unfair advantage. Their rules allow for any female
athlete to be nominated by a medical professional to undergo a test
for hyperandrogenism, a condition associated with being
Supposedly, the presence of high levels of these hormones produces
the equivalent effect of a female athlete 'doping' with
performance-enhancing drugs. If discovered to naturally produce
levels of androgens that fall within what is considered to be the
'male' range she may, they add, continue to compete if she agrees
to take medication which will artificially lower them. Going even
further, if a female athlete is revealed to be intersex, they may
still find her eligible to compete in men's sports.
Laughable as they are, these are the official rules that will
apply to female athletes at London 2012. But as The Guardian was
quick to note, this farcical policy does nothing but sanction the
victimisation of female athletes who deviate from gender norms, and
justifies itself on a very shaky medical premise.
Having high testosterone levels in a woman may give her a slight
natural advantage, but why on earth do they perceive a need to root
out what most would imagine is a very small number of athletes who
are intersex, in the process harassing women whose physical
characteristics are so 'masculine' as to invite the suspicion of
the official Olympics gender police?
How utterly ridiculous to suggest that someone should have to
artificially lower their hormone levels to be considered woman
enough to compete in their sport. Do we propose to lop off
swimmers' toes if they go over a certain shoe size, therefore
giving them an unfair paddle-like advantage?
The Guardian goes on to point out, there is a fair amount of
overlap between the 'normal' testosterone levels of female and male
athletes: in a study commissioned by the IOC, it was found that 8%
of female athletes' levels fell above the 'female' range - more
surprisingly, 25% of male athlete's testosterone levels fell well
below the 'male' range, with a fair number falling within the
Are they threatening to ban all men who have too little
testosterone, on the grounds that they aren't 'male' enough to
compete in men's sports? Of course not. There is simply no
equivalent proposal for male athletes to be called on to prove
their biological sex.
And what are the requirements for submitting someone for a gender
test? The regulations don't specify; they merely ask for the
presentation of evidence, which I think we can reasonably assume
would be along the lines of, 'Well, she's kind of hard to
The motives which inspired these regulations may well be perfectly
harmless however the fact that they made it unchallenged into the
Olympic rulebook reflects a disturbing insensitivity towards
feminist views on gender, not to mention an extraordinarily narrow
view of the relationship between gender and biological sex.
It is hard enough for female athletes to be taken seriously and
treated equally when they are under constant pressure from the
press, and their own sporting associations, to show a 'feminine'
side to their strength and toughness (and invariably this involves
taking off a few more articles of clothing).
When sport gets over its insecurity about what it means to be a
'real' woman, and stops fighting against gender non-conformity,
then, who knows, we might even see a few more lesbian athletes come
out of the woodwork. Until then shall we just enjoy the show?