Every four years the Olympics bring excitement and drama with anticipation of which individuals or teams will bring home gold medals. However, did you know that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) implemented policies to test sex hormones of women? Over the past years, qualifying athletes as male or female has come into question. To ensure certain competing women didn’t have an athletic advantage because they were actually male, the IOC decided to implement a policy to test sex hormones of female athletes that seem too male.
Laurie Essig’s article, “Olympic Sex,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education quoted Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, medical anthropologists at Stanford and Barnard, “These new policies try to get around that complexity by singling out testosterone levels as the most important aspect of athletic advantage. But what causes athletic advantage is equally complex and cannot be reduced to testosterone levels.” Essig continued, “Faced with the conundrum of sex in elite female athletes, the International Olympic Committee decided it would test for levels of testosterone, and if it is ‘too high,’ it would disqualify the athletes from competing. Simple. Except no one knows what ‘normal’ levels of testosterone in elite athletes might be or even whether there is any relationship between high levels of testosterone and superior athletic performance.”
Controversy mounts as this decision has many complications. Sex and human biology is complicated and not cut and dry. For the London Olympic Games, the IOC decided that their policy on sex will be based on functional androgens (or functional testosterone). Women that were raised as girls will be allowed to play as a woman as long as the IOC does not find that her body makes and responds to high levels of androgens. Testosterone is a type of androgen that naturally occurs in both male and female bodies; however, higher production usually signifies more male development. Alice Dreger’s article, “The Olympic Struggle Over Sex,” in The Atlantic said, “Notice that the IOC won’t just be looking at how much androgens a woman’s body makes, but also how much her cells respond. This is because some women are born with testes that make a lot of testosterone, but they lack androgen-sensitive receptors, so the androgens have little-to-no effect on their cells. This condition is called complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Those who have it — women like Spanish hurdler Maria Patino — develop essentially as girls and women.”
Female athletics can potentially face discrimination and humiliation based on the IOC policy. The policy opens up testing based on external looks of the women in question. Laura Essigs says, “It seems the actual anxiety about high levels of androgens in female athletes is more aesthetic than athletic: The athletes might not look feminine enough. Apparently such testing can be instituted if there are any complaints at all that a female athlete ‘looks like a man.’ Such was the case with Olympic runner Caster Semenya, who was, after months of humiliating tests and press coverage, ruled ‘woman enough’ to compete.”
Hopefully the policy will evolve to do more universal testing not to single out certain women. Alternatively, the IOC could look at Essig’s approach, “Perhaps the Olympic committee should acquaint themselves with the ancient Greek model of sex, a one-sex model in which one was either hotter (and external) or colder (and internal). Although not without its drawbacks, at least the Galenic one-sex model would allow for some of the messiness of sex and sports.”
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