Two years have passed since Caster Semenya had the honor of carrying South Africa’s Flag at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic games located in London. Just three years prior, Caster was banned from the World Athletic Championships in Berlin after effortlessly cruising her way to winning gold in the 800m race. With a combination of physical appearance, a dominating performance, and speculations of not being a woman, Caster was subject to gender verification in order to compete again.
It is the all too common debate over the use and purpose of sex testing that has become an increasingly controversial subject in the sporting world. Although this seems to be a pressing issue within international competition, it is one that I personally have never put much thought into. I come from a background where sport actually defines who I am, and it alarms me that I had no prior knowledge on the subject, until recently I did a little bit of research. I found myself highly intrigued by the subject, predominantly because I assume most of us agree that sex-segregated sports are necessary within competition.
When looking back on the history of sports, much of it has been organized by sex or gender. This is for obvious reasons such as the genetic dispositions, in which male athletes have a superior physical advantage over female athletes. While the majority of individuals easily fit into these categories of being male or female, there is a small population of people who don’t quite fit as easily. Some individuals identify themselves as transgender or intersex, which evidently causes some confusion or uncertainty when it comes to fitting into either one of the categories. In other cases, some individuals are just questioned about their sex by those around them, especially in the event of a person winning beyond the norm such as Caster Semenya.
For quite some time, national and international committees have struggled to set a clear criterion for sex testing. This becomes a sticky situation when the question arises of what exactly is being tested? Are we speaking about testing hormones, chromosomes, or genitals? As the years go on, committees that are involved with the issue are evidently becoming more responsive of the fact that sex is not universally binary, and that sex cannot be determined by any simple or arbitrary marker.
Just recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) implemented a new rule that would ban women with naturally high testosterone levels, known as hyperandrogenism, from competing in the Olympic games. Many advocates undoubtedly agree this policy isn’t the greatest, but according to the IOC action must take place in order to prevent women who play like “men” from competing against those who are “real” women.
In addition, majority of the testing done by national and international committees are primarily testing women. This is for obvious reasons such as fraudulent males trying to pose as female athletes creating an unfair playing field. It should be noted that it is certainly very rare to see testing done in the male class to see if there are fraudulent females participating in the wrong category.
On the contrary, we have a report written by Wiesmann who questions against the procedures used by committees such as is there a right not to know one’s sex? Or the harm and discrimination associated with the procedures used. Wiesmann argues that the practices used to gather genetic data come with the potential cause of being highly invasive. For example, an individual may receive medical information beyond their gender or sex that reveals susceptibility to potential conditions they are at risk for. This creates a test that Wiesmann refers to as a curse rather than a blessing.
Furthermore, she argues that humiliation is a major factor that comes into play when athletes find out they may be the opposite sex of what they originally thought they were. For instance, female competitors who are diagnosed as having a Y-chromosome, this information undoubtedly comes with disbelief. She goes onto explain that this initiates a gender identity crisis, which is essentially the foundation of personhood. Under such circumstances, athletes can experience damage towards privacy, honor, and self-esteem. Wiesmann evidently does not agree with the testing that the IOC and other national and international committees perform for those reasons.
To conclude, the issue of sex testing and the overall purpose of it will evidently be a controversial topic for years to come. It is quite clear that committees such as the IOC are trying to unravel the issue the best they can, while trying to maintain fairness within the Olympic games and other international competitions. Nonetheless, advocates such as Wiesmann may argue otherwise with the approaches taken because they come with much scrutiny such as being highly invasive, humiliating, and potentially inaccurate. Due to sex testing being such a muddled subject, in my opinion, the subject definitely requires further action and exploration to consider the different ways of setting a clear criterion.
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Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. (2012). Sport in Transition: Making Sport in Canada More Responsible for Gender Inclusivity. Retrieved from http://www.cces.ca/files/pdfs/CCES-PAPER-SportInTransition-E.pdf