Well, that didn’t take very long. China’s state media is reporting that female athletes suspected of “really” being males will be made to undergo gender screening at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, set to open in a few short weeks:
Suspected athletes will be evaluated from their external appearances by experts and undergo blood tests to examine their sex hormones, genes and chromosomes for sex determination, according to Prof. Tian Qinjie of Peking Union Medical College Hospital.
But these tests—which, as the New York Times rightly points out, reduce women to their sex chromosomes as the sole defining characteristic—don’t always work anyway. The Xinhua article says that “test results from about one in 500 to 600 athletes are abnormal”, and goes on to cite a whole set of cases that seem to indicate that these tests may not be all they’re cracked up to be:
Polish runner Ewar Kobukkowska, who won a gold medal in the women’s 4 X 100 meter relay and the bronze in the women’s 100 meter sprint at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, was the first athlete to be caught in a gender test after she failed the early form of a chromosome test in 1967.
She was found to have a rare genetic condition which gave her no advantage over other athletes, but was nonetheless banned from competing in the Olympics and professional sports.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight athletes failed the tests but were all cleared by subsequent examinations.
In another case, Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan who won the silver medal in the 800 meters track event at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, failed the sex determination test and was stripped of her medal.
Note how Soundarajan is not identified as a male. The article uses feminine pronouns, for goodness’ sake. Her only crime was being intersexed, having one of those genetic abnormalities that can cause the test to yield false results. In fact, it doesn’t appear that there are any cases of this kind of screening revealing men cheating by pretending to be women at this level of competition at all.
And if that wasn’t enough, the New York Times is reporting that a secondary physiological* test may be administered if an athlete fails the primary test:
The concept has drawn criticism over the years, largely because certain chromosomal abnormalities may cause a woman to fail a test, even though it gives her no competitive advantage. Also, if a female athlete fails a test she must have a physiological examination, which many consider invasive and a privacy violation.
(*I initially misread this to mean a psychological exam, not a physiological one. Still gross and icky and stupid, but I am not as flummoxed for lack of understanding as I had been. Thanks to those who pointed it out.)
The New York Times blog post ends with the following question:
What do you think? Is the possibility of male athletes posing as women in the Olympics great enough to warrant such testing? Or are these tests inappropriate?
The answer, as we have just seen, is that male athletes putting on dresses to outclass their female counterparts simply doesn’t happen at this level of sporting competition, and the tests are unreliable, invasive, and essentializing. Shame on the Olympics for even seriously considering something like this.
Unresolved—and more interesting—question: what about trans* athletes? Where can/should/could they compete in a system like this?
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