The Olympic Struggle Over Sex

Even as it hopes to clarify the difference between male and female athletes, a new rule from the International Olympic Committee inadvertently stirs the waters.

towerbridge-615a.jpgA set of Olympic rings hangs from London's Tower Bridge. (viks2/Flickr)

What is sport ultimately for? That fundamental philosophical question lies behind the debate over what to do with women athletes who were raised as girls but whose bodies seem to be unusually masculine. And in that debate, two clear philosophical camps have emerged.

One camp, led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), believes the line imposed between putative male and putative female athletes must be biological. These folks -- let's call them the Anatomists -- fully admit that sex is really complicated. They acknowledge there's no one magical gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can do for us the hard work of sharp division into male and female leagues. Says the IOC in its latest declaration on the problem: "Human biology [...] allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female, sometimes referred to as intersex."

But the Anatomists still think we should base our sex division in sports on some sort of biological feature, even if it means we have to just pick one. They point out that sports require us to create all sorts of rules that aren't simply natural and self-evident, so why not do it here, too?

And so, the IOC has just decided that, for the London Olympic Games, the rule of sex will be based on something called "functional androgens" (or "functional testosterone"). This means that an athlete who was raised a girl and identifies as a woman will be allowed to play as a woman so long as the IOC does not discover that her body makes and responds to high levels of androgens. Androgens, of which testosterone is one type, naturally occur in both male and female bodies, but higher production usually means more male-typical development.

Notice that the IOC won't just be looking at how much androgens a woman's body makes, but also how much her cells respond. This is because some women are born with testes that make a lot of testosterone, but they lack androgen-sensitive receptors, so the androgens have little-to-no effect on their cells. This condition is called complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Those who have it -- women like Spanish hurdler Maria Patino -- develop essentially as girls and women.

The new IOC policy isn't meant to pick out these women. The athletes who are targeted by this policy on "female hyperandrogenism" include women born with conditions that can result in masculinization -- conditions including partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia.

This hormone-honing approach to sex divisions in sports appalls the other camp, whom we might call the Identifiers. The Identifiers, led mostly by outsiders, believe the line between men and women athletes ought to be based in self-identity. The Identifiers take the messiness of sex development as a reason to give up on biology as the way to distinguish athletes by sex. They argue that, since the borders between sex categories are naturally open, we should not attempt to police them. Instead, we ought to go simply with an athlete's self-identity as man or woman (only requiring, perhaps, that it be confirmed by her or his legal status).

Make no mistake: there are problems with the new IOC biologically-oriented policy. For one, the policy doesn't actually specify what is the permissible level of functional testosterone for women athletes. As a result, there is no way for a woman to get herself tested in private, in advance of the games, to see if she should avoid the possibility of being plucked out of play for a sex crime, so to speak. It also seems odd that apparently the committee isn't going to decide a level until they get a case. That's like writing a criminal law after you've arrested a suspect.

The new policy gives away another problem in its title: "IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism." Why specify "female"? Because the IOC is allowing male athletes to play with conditions that cause them to be hyperandrogenized -- sometimes the very same conditions for which women will be disqualified! The result is that a woman's supposed disease is accepted by the IOC as a man's natural advantage. This hardly seems like a fair way to treat a lady, unless your goal is to keep her down.

Presented by

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."


An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground


The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."


The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Health

Just In