Modern science has given us myriad tests to fight back against cheating and doping in athletic competition. But can any of them determine a man from a woman?
It’s a question that the International Olympic Committee has been struggling with from the start. Early attempts to suss out potential cheaters in female competition included everything from the crude “nude parades” of the 1960s (where athletes were subjected to mandatory naked walks in front of judges) to chromosome tests, all of which were dropped due to inconsistent results.
The IOC’s latest test, announced last month, will use testosterone levels as its measure for determining an athlete’s eligibility to compete as a woman. The test will be administered on a case-by-case basis, and any female athlete with testosterone levels falling in the male range will be disqualified.
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Whether or not the testosterone test will work, it has been met with controversy. One researcher, Andrew Sinclair, told the L.A. Times that his response to the IOC’s latest test was “one of horror”:
“Gender and sex are not black-and-white issues. We are all on a spectrum somewhere,” Sinclair said. “It’s very hard to come up with a single measure that will put you in one group or the other.”
There is science to support Sinclair’s assessment. According to the L.A. Times’ Jon Bardin, somewhere from .5 percnet to 1.7 percent of people are born with some intersex condition, meaning these people have at least some characteristics of both sexes and a wide range of hormone levels. What’s more, there is little hard evidence that testosterone is linked to athletic performance for women in the first place—for example, women with androgen insensitivity syndrome can’t process testosterone and yet tend to excel in sports.
“These policies are based more on folklore than precise science,” said scientist and author Rebecca Jordan-Young to the Daily Beast.
In fairness, the IOC has made some strides to acknowledge that not everyone falls into the category of male and female. In 2004, they created the Stockholm Consensus, a set of guidelines that would allow transgender athletes to compete as long as surgeries and hormone treatments have been completed and a new sex is legally recognized.
But as the binary understanding of gender and sexuality is coming into question, the evidence is mounting that gender, like sexuality, should be allowed to exist on a spectrum. The range between male and female is wide and variable. To make any distinction within that gray area seems not only arbitrary, but more importantly, may be inaccurate.
“[Gender] is a social-imposed categorization which sports authorities have always struggled to comply with,” says Dr. Eric Vilain, a genetics professor at UCLA, to the Daily Beast. “The reality is [tests are] absolutely never going to be perfect.”
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Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung