Olympic Sex

Ah, the Olympics. A seemingly simple pleasure that comes along every four years, when we watch the best athletes in the world compete. But as with all simple pleasures, this one turns out to be a bit of a hairball, since it is based on the most simplistic binary of all—male and female—a binary that has a tendency to implode on itself. The 2012 Olympics present a case in point.

Faced with the conundrum of sex in elite female athletes, the International Olympic Committee decided it would test for levels of testosterone, and if it is “too high,” it would disqualify the athletes from competing. Simple. Except no one knows what “normal” levels of testosterone in elite athletes might be or even whether there is any relationship between high levels of testosterone and superior athletic performance.

According to Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, medical anthropologists at Stanford and Barnard, respectively,

 These new policies try to get around that complexity by singling out testosterone levels as the most important aspect of athletic advantage. But what causes athletic advantage is equally complex and cannot be reduced to testosterone levels.

As the authors point out, elite athletes often have physical differences that allow them to develop into elite athletes, such as

runners and cyclists who have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity, or basketball players who have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet.

It seems the actual anxiety about high levels of androgens in female athletes is more aesthetic than athletic: The athletes might not look feminine enough. Apparently such testing can be instituted if there are any complaints at all that a female athlete “looks like a man.” Such was the case with Olympic runner Caster Semenya, who was, after months of humiliating tests and press coverage, ruled “woman enough” to compete.

Not only will female athletes be singled out for not looking girlie enough, but the test for testosterone will fail to create a simple standard for femaleness in the same way that looking between an athlete’s legs or testing their “sex” chromosomes did. Those tests failed because the Olympic Committee began to realize that

Although it is widely believed that chromosomal testing or genital exams can indicate definitively a person’s sex, such methods are flawed. Contrary to the general understanding that women have two X chromosomes and men have an X and a Y, there are actually too many variations on chromosomal markers to use the test accurately in all cases. While it is uncommon for women to have a Y chromosome, it does occur in a small number of women.

What’s more, regardless of chromosomes, female anatomy and physiology vary in ways that may make it difficult to quickly classify a person as male or female. There are individuals with intersex traits who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male.

Because sex itself is not a binary but a hairball, the insistence that Olympic athletes be either male or female creates both a fantasy world of easily marked bodies and its own nightmare world of bodies that are difficult to pin down. As former Olympic hurdler Maria Martínez-Patiño, who was disqualified from a 1986 title because she has X/Y chromosomes (but developed as a female), writes in a statement that accompanies Jordan-Young’s and Karkazis’s report, “The psychological consequences of this experience are excruciating.”

And not just for the athletes. It is excruciating for all of us watching the policing of sex at the Olympics. Perhaps the Olympic committee should acquaint themselves with the ancient Greek model of sex, a one-sex model in which one was either hotter (and external) or colder (and internal). Although not without its drawbacks, at least the Galenic one-sex model would allow for some of the messiness of sex and sports.

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