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London 2012: IOC’s new rules for transgender athletes are sexist

The issue of transgender athletes and participation in sports has been a bone of contention for a very long time now. On April 5, this year the International Olympic Committee released new rules which are likely to be in place for the London Olympics, 2012 for determining whether women with higher levels of testosterone will be eligible for competing in women’s sports.

Many believe that this clarification has been issued to counter the embarrassing handling of a challenge on South African runner, Caster Semenya’s, gender at the World Championships however the IOC denies any such link. Closer home Santhi Soundarajan an Indian athlete was stripped of her Asian Games silver medal in 2006 after failing a gender test.

The new rules state that a panel of independent medical experts will examine through a blood test the testosterone levels in a woman and will then make a recommendation about whether she could be eligible to compete. (for more on this please see here and here)

The process will be triggered in three ways
- An athlete can herself request an evaluation
- If during routine urine testing for performance enhancing drugs it is noticed that the athlete has male characteristics
- Drug testing results reveal abnormal testosterone levels

If the athlete is ruled ineligible, she would be informed of what “conditions she needs to meet in order to return to competition.” One of the welcome moves has been to do away with suspicion based complaints by one athlete against another. These would now not be considered as a ground for investigation.

For a background about gender issues and sport please see timeline below

These new rules reek of sexism and unfairness and raise the age old debate why does sport recognise only two categories of people, men and women?

1. The rules are sexist as they apply only to women athletes
The new rules apply only to women athletes. A woman with high testosterone levels has been put under the scanner but not men with high levels of testosterone. What about a man who has abnormally high testosterone levels which give him an unfair advantage? Is that acceptable? The IOC is silent on this count.

The IOC’s response has largely been that these rules are necessary to create a level playing field for women athletes. However it seems that they are more concerned with the need to create a level playing field for those whom they consider are ‘normal’ women athletes with little regard to those who fall in between. The burden has been unfairly placed on the athlete to prove she is a woman in the eyes of the IOC.
Moreover the issue of male athletes who may have unfair advantages over other male athletes has been conveniently left off the debate. If the IOC feels that women athletes are being unfairly treated because of certain women having higher testosterone levels being allowed to compete with them maybe the IOC should also take into account differences in male athletes. What about nationality? African and Black athletes are known to perform better at track and field events, Chinese athletes are known to have a natural advantage in badminton? Will the IOC look at these as unfair advantages? The answer, not likely because to do so would be racist, and the treatment they are currently meting out along similar lines to transgendered athletes is discriminatory.

The Olympic Charter states that the IOC must act to prevent discrimination of any kind. Further one of the principles of Olympism mentioned in the Olympic Charter state that any form of discrimination including discrimination related to gender is incompatible with the Olympic Movement. The new rules quite clearly apply only to women athletes and not male athletes which is in complete violation of the spirit of the Olympic Movement. Moreover by continuing to invisibilise the third sex and insisting that athletes fall into either one category male or female the IOC is perpetuating rather than putting an end to discrimination.

2. The rules are against the spirit of the Olympic Charter
The Olympic Charter which is available here lays down the Mission and Role of the IOC. Going by these rules the IOC has the responsibility to encourage and support development of sport for all and to encourage and support measures protecting the health of athletes.

The new rules harp on the existence of only two categories of persons who can compete and participate in sport i.e. men and women. If someone does not fall into any one of these categories they must undertake measures to render them fit for either one. By insisting that individuals modify themselves in order to fit into these categories rather than the other way round the IOC is going against its duty of encouraging the development of sport for all. Traditionally measures recommended for athletes with ambiguous genitalia have included sex reassignment surgeries, taking certain hormones to reduce the effect of testosterone etc. By interfering with the anatomy of an individual the IOC is violating another Olympic principle, protecting the health of athletes.

An alternative: A Third Category? or No Category?
It is high time the IOC looks beyond these traditional categories of men and women and introduces a separate category for intersexed individuals. The IOC should focus its efforts on introducing a third category for competitive international sport rather than trying to create distinct boundaries where even medical science has failed. Or better still the IOC can do away with distinctions based on gender and instead introduce completely new criteria based on weight and height distinctions.

There exist a large number of individuals who do not belong to any one category male or female but who have the will and zeal to compete in sport at the highest level. Is the IOC going to continue neglecting them by insisting that they undergo sex determination tests and complicated surgeries and prove that they fall within their definition of normal? The new rules should have instead introduced a third separate category for competing at the highest level. The London Olympics would have been the ideal platform to launch this. However the IOC has chosen its often beaten track of sex determination tests and medical interventions rather than bringing about a much needed revolution in international sport.

As Santhi Soundarajan put it a few years ago while commenting on her own gender controversy, A gender test cannot take away from you who you are.

Timeline of Events

1930s : Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna of Poland won two Olympic medals and set 18 world records in the 1930s. Upon her death she was discovered to have male genitalia and both male and female sets of chromosomes.

1960’s : Tamara and Irina Press of the Soviet Union were both Olympic medal winners in the 1960s. Between them they set 26 world records. Throughout their careers there was constant speculation that they were men.

1966 : Gender Verification tests become mandatory. It consisted of a physical inspection by a panel of doctors
1968 : The Buccal Smear chromosome was introduced. An XX result confirmed the athlete to be a woman; an XY result indicated that the athlete is a man. However this test was done away with as it was considered inaccurate.
1991 : PCR Analysis of the SRY Gene, was introduced. Proved to be highly inaccurate and was dropped.
1996 : Atlanta, 1996 last games at which gender verification of female athletes was considered mandatory
2006 : Santhi Soundarajan an Indian athlete loses her Asian Games silver medal after failing a gender test.
2009 : South African runner, Caster Semenya’s gender is called into question after winning the women’s 800m final race at the 2009 IAAF Athletics World Championships.
2010 : Lana Lawless, transgender golfer banned from competing in professional golf in the US by the LPGA

 

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