Posted by: manafanana | August 6, 2008

“Real” Men and Women Only at the Olympics

Hi all, I know it’s been awhile since I posted, but I thought I’d poke around on the intertubes for old time’s sake.

I wanted to share a link to Monday’s episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR that I caught on my way to the airport. The segment is called Op-Ed: Olympic Gender Testing ‘Bound To Fail’ and features professor Jennifer Finney Boylan. The segment is rather long, so here’s a quick summary:

Female Olympic athletes may be obliged to undergo a “gender test” if their gender is questioned. Male athletes are not, and have never been, subjected to these tests, but for quite some time all female athletes had to submit to gender testing. These blanket tests were abandoned in 1999, but local Olympic authorities are still permitted to require tests where the gender of a given female athlete is controversial. These tests include a physical examination (which, one could imagine, might be very humiliating) and a buccal smear to be tested for chromosomal material, among other tests.

These tests are supposed to level the playing field for all “legit” female athletes by preventing women who may test genetically male from “cheating” by competing with women who are genetically female, or at least this is the gist of the rationale behind the testing as I understand it.

The interesting thing about all this is that the Olympic committee makes exceptions for women who are transgender. So, openly trans women are allowed to compete unmolested by embarrassing tests as long as they have had full surgeries, two years worth of hormone replacement therapy, etc. That means that the women most negatively affected by this testing are women who are still transitioning, or women who may have lived their whole lives as women, but who test male when their chromosomes are analyzed (they might be XXY). Of course, many of the women who test male may have no idea that they have “abnormal” chromosomes, making these tests doubly invasive and humiliating. Professor Boylan also cites cases in which a physical examination has uncovered ambiguous genitalia in an athlete.

I am struck by several issues raised in this op-ed—the obvious injustice of testing only women is near the top of the list. But this piece highlights the problems with the gender binary in some pretty striking ways. Basically, the stance of the IOC is that one is not allowed to compete unless one can be determined to be either definitely male or definitely female. This means that women who test positive for XXY chromosomes or who are in the process of transitioning between genders have no means of qualifying. The IOC, in other words, does not recognize gender as a continuum. This is not exactly surprising; however, I think this story is particularly arresting because it involves such an invasive, scientific, and public inquiry into the gender of individuals in order, essentially, to disqualify and ostracize those who do not fit the binary.

Thoughts on this? I really recommend listening to the entire interview if you’ve got the time.



  1. I’ve actually never thought of it in this way before–why doesn’t it matter if there are women in men’s events but it does if there are men in women’s events? Further, you are correct, it does seem to be an attempt to punish those that don’t fit into the gender dichotomy. I’ve heard of them expelling athletes with chromosomal abnormalities that gave them no actual advantage but left them outside of the two gender categories.

  2. This is a tough issue. I’m a genderqueer person and pretty athletic.

    I’m in a mixed athletics class. For some exercises such as running, the prof makes males and females do different amounts of work, and although I’d like to do the male-oriented work, I can’t, probably because of my bio-female body.

    I hate saying this, but it seems that bio-males do have an advantage. However, many other people also have genetic, economic and social advantages, and no one disqualifies them for that.

    I don’t think that any cisgendered men would try to pass as female just to win a race. So, if someone identifies as female, she should be allowed to compete. Anything less seems anti-trans.

  3. PS: remember the girl who played [url+]basketball[/url] with the boys? Until she was kicked out, that is.

    “The other players’ parents were fine when Jaime joining the team until she outshone their sons on the court.”

  4. I wonder if women who find themselves to be genetically male or-in-between sexes in some fashion (intersexed, XXY, etc) are then allowed to compete in the men’s division of the Olympics.

    If a women is expelled from the Olympics on the grounds of unknowingly being a not-female, that makes her a male. SHE CAN STILL COMPETE.

  5. Hi Kara,

    I would tend to agree with that logic, on the one hand. You raise a good point–it seems to me if you are going to enforce a binary system, everyone must qualify for either one or the other and excluding anyone would be entirely unfair.

    However, I think one of the issues that this editorial brings to light is that requiring that a woman, who has lived her whole life as a woman and who will always consider herself a woman to compete in the men’s games simply because she test positive for a Y chromosome is possibly as unfair or as humiliating as revoking that woman’s privilege to compete in the first place. Perhaps not in all circumstances, granted, but I think in a majority this would be the case.

    I do agree that letting these women compete in the male games would at least be a step, if only a very small one, in the right direction, but I think the larger solution will have to be a bit more sophisticated than that–one that would aknowlege and consider the gray area between the gender binary. What do you think?

    Also, genderkid,

    Thanks for your input on this! I think I agree with your reasoning. Actually, Boylan cited an instance wherein a german male athlete posed as a
    female in order to win a medal (this is Nazi germany of the 1940s). And that is the only account of such a thing happening and it was apparently the government’s idea, not the athlete’s. Given the slim likelihood of such a thing happening again (it’s happened once that we know of in the last how many millenia? Doesn’t exactly seem like an epidemic problem) I think it is in the interest of fairness to allow athletes who identify as female to compete in the women’s games.

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