Determining Sex in the Olympics
I think everyone recognizes that it would be unfair for men to compete in women's athletic events. But everyone might not appreciate the difficulty of defining male and female, even with the most sophisticated medical tests.
The LA Times:
The LA Times:
Of all the obstacles athletes have had to overcome to compete in the Olympics, perhaps the most controversial has been the gender test.Normally we talk about sex as being defined by the physical characteristics of the body, and gender being a sense of who you are. This article is talking about determining the physical sex of people who identify themselves as women. The problem is that there is no clear defining quality that separates the sexes.
Originally designed to prevent men from competing in women's events, it is based on the premise that competitors can be sorted into two categories via established scientific rules. But the biological boundaries of gender aren't always clear.
Consider the Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño. A gender test revealed that she had a Y chromosome, which normally makes a person male. She also had complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, or CAIS, which prevented her body from responding properly to testosterone and caused her to develop as a woman.
The Spanish Athletic Federation got her test results in 1986, just before a major competition that would have set her up for an Olympic run. Though she won the 60-meter hurdles, the federation declared her ineligible for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
The International Olympic Committee has struggled with cases like these, variously using hair patterns, chromosomes, individual genes and other factors in their long-running attempts to distinguish men from women. All of these tests have been discarded.
For the London Games, officials are going by a new set of rules that shifts the focus from DNA to testosterone, a hormone that aids muscle development, endurance and speed. Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women
"There is no single metric for sex or athletic potential," said Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA. But he called the new testosterone-based test a pragmatic solution to a real problem. "I have talked to many elite female athletes, and I haven't found one who is comfortable with the idea of having no testing," he said.Olympic officials are trying to focus on factors that affect athletic performance, namely the metabolism of testosterone. But the problem is further complicated when individuals produce testosterone but can't use it. Skipping down ...
Once it's agreed that men and women should compete separately, how should officials divide them up?
It's not a rhetorical question. Though most people fall neatly into "male" and "female" categories, some do not. The fact that there are people with physical or genetic traits of both sexes prompted the IOC to rethink its gender test.
The new rules, announced last month, disqualify athletes from women's events if they have testosterone levels in the normal male range, which is 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter of blood. Because the top range for women is slightly below 3 nanomoles per liter, such levels could give athletes an unfair advantage that officials have a duty to root out, said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of IOC's Medical Commission and a former Olympic high jumper. Athletes with complete androgen insensitivity will be allowed to compete.
But if testosterone were essential to athletic success, [Spanish hurdler Maria Jose] Martinez-Patiño would have been doomed to fail because her body can't use the hormone. Many women with androgen insensitivity have competed in the Olympics, and "the idea that testosterone is a necessary ingredient for elite athletic performance is really undermined by these cases," Van Anders said.This article is fairly lengthy, and goes into the history of the controversy.
In fact, androgen insensitivity is overrepresented among female athletes, Vilain added: The general population has an incidence of 1 in 20,000, but for Olympic athletes it is about 1 in 400. No one knows why.
"If we could just have a social answer and let everyone declare their own sex, that would be great," he said. But "if we say, 'Anyone who says they're a woman is a woman,' I worry that people will always take advantage of that."In the end of this article it is suggested that any test will eventually fail.
Accusations of men masquerading as women in the Olympics go back at least as far as 1936, the year questions were raised about American sprinter Helen Stephens after her upset win at the Berlin Summer Games. Stephens passed some sort of gender test — the details are lost to history — and was awarded a gold medal.