Gendered competitions challenge sports ethics

By S. Hennessy Machado-Hidalgo

Across the political spectrum many would argue that separating sports by gender should be a simple endeavor that anyone who believes in fairness would agree on, despite evidence that separating by gender has never been simple. 

As gender’s definition evolves with more nuanced understandings of its relationship to human biology and social constructs, separating sports by gender will not be a simple endeavor anytime soon.

International elite sports have been having this conversation since at least the 1930s.

One of the most famous and early instances of such conversation was when American athlete Helen Stephens set a world record time for the women’s 100-meter race at 11.5 seconds during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Stephens beat competing athlete Stella Walsh, who was representing Poland, by 0.2 seconds. This would lead a Polish publication to call Stephens’ status as a woman into question.

Olympic officials performed a test to verify Stephens’ sex, which she passed.

However, Walsh’s status as a woman athlete would be challenged posthumously after an autopsy report revealed that Walsh had ambiguous sex characteristics despite having been assigned female at birth by doctors and living her life as such. 

Walsh was intersex and her gender identity was that of a woman.

Another famous example of an intersex athlete who faced scrutiny is a previous champion hurdler for Spain in the 1980s, María José Martínez-Patiño.

In Martínez-Patiño’s own words in a personal account published in the medical journal The Lancet, she has a vagina.

Yet, she did not pass a mandated chromosome test for women athletes.

Martínez-Patiño has XY chromosomes, but she developed as a female because she has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome.

CAIS makes the body unable to use testosterone. 

Martínez-Patiño would argue her eligibility to compete as a woman to the International Amateur Athletics Association (now World Athletics) for years until IAAF medical commissioner Arne Ljungqvist granted her a license to compete. 

International elite sports organizations are still evaluating and deciding the metrics of which athletes can compete in the women’s sports category.

Gender verification tests were the previous and inaccurate metrics for determining if an athlete is biologically aligned with the women’s category.

In today’s society, the understanding of gender and gender identity has become more nuanced than what can be determined by chromosomes or genitals.

The World Health Organization defines gender as “the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed,” and gender identity as “a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.”

Under these modern definitions, advocates for intersex and transgender athletes believe sports should be seperated by gender as this would allow such athletes to compete as the gender they identify as.

Many elite sports organizations also advocate for maintaining the division of sport’s competition into male and female categories.

Where elite sports organizations and intersex and transgender athlete advocates tend to disagree is how to determine an athlete’s eligibility to compete in the female category.

World Athletics’, the governing body of intenational track-and-field, current policy dictates that the eligibility of athletes as women competitors for athletes who are intesex (a group the WA refers to as people with differences in sexual development or DSD) and trangender is determined by how much circulating testosterone their bodies can use.

Whether an athlete’s body can use the testosterone their body produces is relevant to intersex people with varying types of androgen insensitivity syndrome, such as Martínez-Patiño who’s never went through male puberty and could not use the testosterone her body produced.

If the athlete’s usable testosterone exceeds the maximum the WA allows for eligible female athletes, the athlete is required to lower their level through medical intervention in order to participate.

This is relevant for intersex people who can use the testorene their bodies produce.

Annet Negesa, a middle-distance runner for Uganda until 2012, is an intersex female athlete who has had her story highlighted by the international Human Rights Watch organization.

Negesa said, “my dream… was taken away by the IAAF [now World Athletics] regulations.”

Negesa was told that in order to compete she would have to lower her naturally occurring testosterone levels through surgery in order to compete.

After Negesa’s surgery, her performance was no longer the same and would be unable to qualify to compete at the Olympic level.

The Fédération Internationale De Natation, an organization that governs elite international swimming sports, has taken a more consevative approach with their policy on eligibility for men’s and women’s competition categories.

FINA’s policy dictates that athletes that have DSD or are transgender women are allowed to compete only if, “they can establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.”

Chris Mosier, transgender athlete advocate and a trangender man and athlete himself, argued in a piece for The Guardian that, “FINA’s new policy requires athletes to transition before the onset of puberty, but with transgender youth’s access to gender-affirming care under threat in many US states and in countries around the world, this is increasingly difficult.”

Mosier claims that FINA’s policy is essentially a ban against trans athletes. 

In 2019, WA estimated “7.1 in every 1000 elite female athletes in [international track-and-field] are DSD athletes with very high testosterone levels in the male range.”

According to San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisesexual, Trangender News, “since the IOC [International Olympics Committee] first implemented its policy on transgender athletes in 2003, a total of 12 transgender athletes have competed in the Olympics. This includes six transgender women and six transgender men.”

These numbers very much show how intersex and transgender athletes are the minority in sports.

However, the WA has claimed that intersex athletes are overrepresented on the podium in women’s sports competitions.

At the national level, NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines has spoken out against trangender woman Lia Thomas competing.

Gaines said, “the majority of us female athletes, or females in general, really, are not OK with this, and they’re not OK with the trajectory of this and how this is going and how it could end up in a few years.”

Sports at the international level seem beyond the question of, “Should sports be separated by gender?”

It seems a somewhat more complicated, yet broader question has come to the surface: How should sports categories be separated if not by gender?

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