Do female athletes with "unusually" high levels of male hormones have an unfair advantage on the field? The International Association of Athletics Federations thinks so: the organization recently decided that a woman cannot compete in track and field sports if she has too much testosterone in her apparently confusing body.
The issue has been a hot topic in South Africa ever since 21-year-old Caster Semenya won an 800-meter world championship and her competitors called her out for her "muscular biceps" and "husky voice." "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she's not a woman. She's a man," said Elisa Cusma, who placed sixth in the race. Some might think Cusma sounds like a sore loser, but the IAAF has decreed that women like Semenya must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an IAAF expert medical panel if they want to continue to compete, because they have an "unfair advantage," said Dr. Stéphane Bermon, coordinator of the IAAF working group on Hyperandrogenism and Sex Reassignment in Female Athletics. "More muscle mass, easier recovery and a higher level of blood red cells."
Semenya kept her medal and was eventually allowed to race, but she looks markedly more feminine now — according to the Toronto Star, she's "almost unrecognizable from photographs taken during the height of the controversy." Track and field managers at the university she trains at say they know she gets treatment, but that they can't give any details. "We all accept . . . and she accepts . . . within sports you have to perform within certain guidelines, or else it will be chaos," explained one manager. Semenya won't talk about it either, but now that she has a "fit, feminine body" and wears tight clothes to show it off, people seem satisfied enough.
Critics call the new guidelines "policing femininity" and believe they stem from antiquated stereotypes of women in sports. "It's still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can't be real women. It's that clear, it's that prejudicial," said Bruce Kidd, a prominent Canadian sport policy adviser. But Kristen Worley, a Canadian cyclist who is also a transgender activist, sits on the expert panel and says the goal is to base sports on ability instead of on sex.
That certainly sounds ideal — especially since women athletes are so often expected to fit into a certain type of sexily-grunting, looks-awesome-in-a-sports-bra kind of archetype — but it doesn't sound all that realistic. And this most recent spate of gender verification tests are a vast improvement on the past: women used to have to walk nude in front of a panel of experts who determined whether they were suitable to compete in the 1960s. The naked catwalks gave way to chromosome tests, which were likewise abandoned in the '90s when the IOC called them an "invasion of privacy." After that, intersex athletes were handled on a case-by-case basis until Semenya's epic win restarted the conversation.
Now the International Olympic Committee is in the process of approving similar rules for the upcoming London Games. Semenya will be there, but she might not bring home the gold — she no longer performs like she used to. "Caster is not something out of the ordinary," said Frik Vermaak, the new CEO of Athletics South Africa. "She's a normal athlete." And what if she does win again; will her competitors continue to insist she's not womanly enough, even if she now looks the part?
Olympics struggle with ‘policing femininity' [Toronto Star]