The Idiocy of Sex Testing

World-class South African athlete Caster Semenya, age 18, won the 800 meters in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships on August 19. But her victory was all the more remarkable in that she was forced to run amid a controversy that reveals the twisted way international track and field views gender.

The sports world has been buzzing for some time over the rumor that Semenya may be a man, or more specifically, not “entirely female.” According to the newspaper The Age, her “physique and powerful style have sparked speculation in recent months that she may not be entirely female.” From all accounts an arduous process of “gender testing” on Semenya has already begun. The idea that an 18-year-old who has just experienced the greatest athletic victory of her life is being subjecting to this very public humiliation is shameful to say the least.

Her own coach Michael Seme contributed to the disgrace when he said, “We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.”

The people with something to hide are the powers that be in track and field, as well as in international sport. As long as there have been womens’ sports, the characterization of the best female athletes as “looking like men” or “mannish” has consistently been used to degrade them. When Martina Navratilova dominated women’s tennis and proudly exposed her chiseled biceps years before Hollywood gave its imprimatur to gals with “guns,” players complained that she “must have a chromosome loose somewhere.”

This minefield of sexism and homophobia has long pushed female athletes into magazines like Maxim to prove their “hotness”–and implicitly their heterosexuality. Track and field in particular has always had this preoccupation with gender, particularly when it crosses paths with racism. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that in the case of black women, “the International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them–the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.'”

For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials. This has now given way to more “sophisticated” “gender testing” to determine if athletes like Semenya have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage–being a man. Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success. A country’s wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could.

What these officials still don’t understand, or will not confront, is that gender–that is, how we comport and conceive of ourselves–is a remarkably fluid social construction. Even our physical sex is far more ambiguous and fluid than is often imagined or taught. Medical science has long acknowledged the existence of millions of people whose bodies combine anatomical features that are conventionally associated with either men or women and/or have chromosomal variations from the XX or XY of women or men. Many of these “intersex” individuals, estimated at one birth in every 1,666 in the United States alone, are legally operated on by surgeons who force traditional norms of genitalia on newborn infants. In what some doctors consider a psychosocial emergency, thousands of healthy babies are effectively subject to clitorectomies if a clitoris is “too large” or castrations if a penis is “too small” (evidently penises are never considered “too big”).

The physical reality of intersex people calls into question the fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and men and women athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular. The heretical bodies of intersex people challenge the traditional understanding of gender as a strict male/female phenomenon. While we are never encouraged to conceive of bodies this way, male and female bodies are more similar than they are distinguishable from each other. When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits. Title IX, the 1972 law imposing equal funding for girls’ and boys’ sports in schools, has radically altered not only women’s fitness and emotional well-being, but their bodies as well. Obviously, there are some physical differences between men and women, but it is largely our culture and not biology that gives them their meaning.

In 1986, Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño was stripped of her first-place winnings when discovered to have an XY chromosome, instead of the female’s XX, which shattered her athletic career and upended her personal life. “I lost friends, my fiancé, hope and energy,” said Martínez-Patiño in a 2005 editorial in the journal The Lancet.

Whatever track and field tells us Caster Semenya’s gender is–and as of this writing there is zero evidence she is intersex–it’s time we all break free from the notion that you are either “one or the other.” It’s antiquated, stigmatizing and says far more about those doing the testing than about the athletes tested. The only thing suspicious is the gender and sex bias in professional sports. We should continue to debate the pros and cons of gender segregation in sport. But right here, right now, we must end sex testing and acknowledge the fluidity of gender and sex in sports and beyond.

  • First published at The Nation.
  • Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at: edgeofsports@gmail.com. Sherry Wolf is an independent journalist the author of the new critically praised book Sexuality and Socialism (Haymarket Books). Read other articles by Dave Zirin.

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    1. Comptia A+ said on August 22nd, 2009 at 11:33am #

      We don’t discriminate against tall women and say they shouldn’t compete because they’re too tall.
      If they have been born and raised as women and they think about themselves as women I would say let them compete as women.
      ccna ccent

    2. russell olausen said on August 22nd, 2009 at 5:00pm #

      An extremely confusing physical experience for the unaware; maybe competition by weight would serve objectivity as well. Science may well make sex organs redundant and we will be left with cell division Mr. Frankenstein.

    3. B99 said on August 23rd, 2009 at 5:23am #

      Can’t have men competing as women. All athletes should be gender-tested, the results kept private. Only those with XX genes should compete with women – any other combination, including the usual XY, should only compete with men.

      This particular race was handily won by the 18-year old Caster Semenya – a person and name with virtually no acclaim on the international circuit even six months ago – beating former world champions and internationally recognized elite runners with ease. That can’t be. Contrary to this article, there is too much gender difference in performance for males and females to compete against each other. Why destroy women’s racing?

    4. rosemarie jackowski said on August 23rd, 2009 at 8:24am #

      One more reason why competitive sports should should end. Let’s try a world based on cooperation instead of competition. It’s “my team is better than your team” type thinking that sometimes leads to “my country is better than your country”.

    5. B99 said on August 23rd, 2009 at 8:50am #

      Rosemarie – Are you going to legislate against competition? Can’t people compete if they want to? Surely, cooperation should be the societal emphasis – and not just in sports – but people love to compete, we see it even here on DV. Since the ancient Greeks until well into the 20th century, women were not allowed into marathon runs or the Olympics, on the grounds that the weaker sex was too fragile and they would hurt themselves. Now we know that many women not only love to compete – they excel at it.

      In any case, team sports contain both cooperation and competition. The two together are what make team sports as popular as they are (especially among males). Sports would simply disappear without competition. What would actually happen is that they would be taken underground -black market sports, like boxing used to be.

    6. toto said on August 23rd, 2009 at 5:34pm #

      The science is well know. Ziron makes a very good point, other than not be able to bear children, the XY woman is no different from an XX female.

      B99 would have you believe that somehow a man is competing against a woman, dear god what an injustice!

    7. B99 said on August 23rd, 2009 at 8:17pm #

      Yes Toto, men and women should not compete in running events – nor in a host of other events. If they continued to do so the race would only be among men. And then I suppose you’d be clamoring to have separate events for women because they have been marginalized – nay eliminated. But I don’t suppose you are familiar with this sport.

    8. toto said on August 24th, 2009 at 8:07am #

      Your absolutley incorrect B99. It is obvious to anyone that an ability based categorization irregardless of gender can work just as well. Then the problem would be all the sandbagging men I sure.

    9. b99 said on August 24th, 2009 at 12:25pm #

      No Toto. Women’s performaces in the sprints, the middle and long-distance running and heights and lengths in the field events and in swimming only begin to approach the standards of men of several decades ago. What this means is that once males get to puberty, females are no longer in the race.

      So for the 100 meter sprint, the record for men in 1912 was 10.6 seconds. The PRESENT record for women is 10.5 – and that was accomplished in 1988 by a woman whom most believe to have been using steroids. Before that, it was 10.8 – slower than males of nearly century ago.

      In the mile, men were running the distance in 4:12 in the late 19th century. That happens also to be the PRESENT world record for women.

      Forcing women to compete against men would mean the demise of women’s track and field sports (and swimming, etc.) Unless, of course, that is your goal.

    10. rosemarie jackowski said on August 24th, 2009 at 12:54pm #

      B99…No, I do not advocate legislation banning competition. I just don’t think that because something feels good or is fun, it should necessarily be encouraged. There just might be a higher value to pursue than hedonism.

      Capitalism is based on competition and look where that got us.

    11. B99 said on August 24th, 2009 at 2:30pm #

      Indeed Rosemary. I agree that competition can be hedonistic. But there is nothing inherently wrong in a women’s or men’s softball team, swim event, etc. Within the concept of winning the game and making the play, there are lessons to be learned other than kill the enemy. There are lessons to be learned in humility and human frailty as well. These lessons have been de-emphasized. This is where our political culture has failed.

      I would say that although capitalism is based on competition, capitalism has molded it to meet its own interests – and that it exists long before capitalism came about. It is in fact, instinctual. It needs to be re-oriented.

    12. toto said on August 24th, 2009 at 2:57pm #

      Again, if you would respond to what I wrote instead of shifting the argument to, “men are physically stronger than woman therefore they will always excel in any sport”, nonsense. First of all, the 100 meter sprint, is not the end all and be all of sport. Arguments that might work for this particular sport may not work for others. Secondly, just looking at the times for the 100 meter sprint, the top woman’s times are 1 second behind the top males. Hence, those woman probably just smoked 90% of all male 100 meter sprinters.

    13. B99 said on August 24th, 2009 at 8:02pm #

      You have missed the point, Toto. There is NO sport that women can compete with men at the elite level. Not just the sprints, but all track and field events, all swimming, all team sports, period. The only exceptions would be sports men don’t play. Maybe softball? This is because beginning with puberty, males develop upper bodies that are considerably stronger than developing females. That’s the nature of the beast – literally. It is based in sexual dimorphism common to almost all mammal species. So it is pointless to groom women to compete against men at elite levels – it will only end in their disappearance from the sport. Title IX guarantees (in theory) equal funding of women’s sports in college. That’s great. Why end it by making them compete with men?

      In the 100 meter sprint, a one second difference is equal to about 10 meters or 33 feet. That would be an embarrassing finish. In fact, she would have been eliminated much earlier by not making a qualifying time. The best women sprinters could possibly compete with the best high school males.

      Do you know that very good (but not elite) male marathon runners run alongside elite women runners? These male runners are virtually unknown outside of the sport. But that’s the difference in elite times by gender – about 20 minutes.

    14. toto said on August 25th, 2009 at 10:19am #

      So just because in the rarefied elite sport ranks the differences emerge we must segregate all sports. If races are categorized by ABILITY you would have people of near equal strengths and skill compete.

      And no way in hell, “The best women sprinters could possibly compete with the best high school males.” Being a man does not make you superhuman.

      All the top marathon runners are Kenyan. Does that mean we just have a Kenyan only race because its not fair for others to compete against them? And what does a strong upper body have to do with marathon running?

    15. b99 said on August 25th, 2009 at 11:09am #

      Right, being a man is no more or less human than being a woman. They are both equally human – as are all Homo sapiens. Saying that does not mean that males and females are the same – quite obviously, no? There are no superhumans. Maybe Ussain Bolt.

      The rarefied elite come out of humble backgrounds. At the level of the humble background we find schools. There, whether middle school or high school, males will dominate the track and field events (to say nothing of team sports). To mix girls and boys is to discourage girls entirely – and they will disappear from these sports.

      Here are the present US highschool record times and women’s World record times for various distances.
      Event/US Male highschool record/female world record
      100 meters/10.01/10.61
      200 meters/20.13/21.34
      400 meters/44.69/47.60
      800 meters/ 1:46/1:53
      1000 meters/2:24/2:28
      1500 meters/3:38/3:50
      mile/3:53/4:12

      The pattern is consistent over time and event. I am avid fan of track and field, both male and female. I would hate to return to the era of less than a century ago – when women were not allowed to compete. To force women and girls to compete against men and boys is a disservice to women. They DO enjoy it you know, every bit as much as men do.

      Not all the top male long-distance runners are Kenyan. Granted, they perform disproportionately better than other groups (save Ethiopians and Moroccans to a lesser degree) but the differences are not so huge as to be insurmountable in any given race. Not so with gender.

      OK – it’s not just upper body strength. It’s the muscle to fat ratio, the strength of connective tissue, and percentage of fast-twitch nerves. In the long distance running, lung-capacity also becomes important. Kenyans from the highlands of that country apparently have increased lung capacity and otherwise rather gracile bodies amenable to long-distance running. Few Kenyans from the coastal lowlands excel at long distances. Certainly, there is a running boom in Kenya, a cultural phenomenon, and there is more money these days for training (to some extent). But studies have not sufficiently explained why Kenyans are better than most everyone else.

    16. tired of weaker sex said on August 26th, 2009 at 1:56pm #

      how about chess? except for the Polgar sisters

    17. b99 said on August 27th, 2009 at 7:00am #

      Tired – You know, there are all sorts of differences that may be applied to males and females – but there is also so much overlap that I don’t think we can jump to conclusions too quickly. Besides, there are cultural and social factors regarding chess that are fairly absent from the very simple question of who can get from point A to point B faster on foot. In short, however, whatever basic differences there are between genders, so much can be reinforced or mitigated by culture – women of a century ago would scarcely recognize themselves in their great-great-granddaughters.

      But if you are ‘tired of weaker sex’ you (or your a companion) could try Viagra. :) A weak sex joke.