Feature: The End of Women’s Sport?

Genetically Modified: The End of Women’s Sport?

The Women’s Olympic 800m finalists are all victims of a historically clumsy system determining sex. Castor Semenya is not the first athlete to be put through humiliating “look and see” gender testing. In the 1970’s, barely 16 years old and competing in my first international race, I was visually examined by three male doctors before being allowed to contest an international women’s 10k road race. Why it took three male doctors to determine that my fellow competitors and I didn’t have a penis between our legs is beyond belief. Were they even doctors? Why the sport allowed even one male in the examination room is beyond comprehension. Wouldn’t a female doctor have sufficed?

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Caster Semenya. Photo: BBC

I was relieved when my next international event included a simple chromosome test. The existence of a Y chromosome made an individual ineligible to contest women’s events. It was considered to provide physical advantages in sport. Since then there has been much debate as to whether or not the existence of a Y chromosome provides that advantage. The Sydney Morning Herald provide a comprehensive review on the subject matter.

The sporting world is concerned about doping in sport because it gives athletes an unfair advantage. The biggest challenge to women’s sport is likely to be more complicated. Intersex and transgender athletes, those who carry both female (XX chromosome) and male sex characteristics (XY chromosome), are believed to have a substantial advantage over XX chromosome women. But the issue is complex.

It is not sufficient to suggest normalizing a person’s hormones will create a fair playing field. The benefits of being born intersex or transgender are likely to go way beyond hormonal levels. Just as some studies are now suggesting that brief exposure to performance-enhancing drugs may be permanently remembered by muscles. Being born male or intersex may also to carry advantage that cannot be “normalized” artificially. It would seem no amount of messing with nature can really “balance” out what nature will be.

Social media continues to be a hive of discussion on where to place intersex and transgender athletes. This will continue long after Rio. Do they have an unfair advantage? Should they be allowed to compete?

We need to remember that these women aren’t cheating. A cheat is someone who acts dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage. They were born intersex and raised as women and have been cleared to compete. We should all celebrate their extraordinary courage to stand before the world. But lets continue with this discussion.

In our rapidly homogenised world we may need to move away from gender categories? Perhaps all individuals should be allowed to contest what has traditionally be called men’s events. The new category could simply be called “Open”?

To contest traditional women’s events (the absence of a Y chromosome – if that becomes once again the determining factor) an equally generic term could be given? Or do we have a third category?

Sport needs to find a fair solution for ALL athletes. Until it does, ALL competitors are disadvantaged. Athletes are either shamed for being different or shamed for speaking out about that difference. We need to stop scapegoating these individuals and seek a fair and equitable solution that doesn’t tear at the very fabric of what it is to be human.