Here we go again.
Since the infamous Soviet Press sisters dominated their events in Sixties Era Olympic games, both looking like Hulk Hogan in a dress, and the female East German swimmers won medal after medal while sporting shoulders that would make an NFL draftee feel proud, the issue of hormone levels in female competitors has been contentious. The confounding complications of intersex and transitioning competitors has only made the mud muddier. What’s the right thing to do?
Last week, track and field’s world governing body passed new rules limiting women’s events to athletes with testosterone levels that are “capable of being produced solely by ovaries.” These rules apply across the board to athletes regardless of what gender they were presumed to be at birth. These new rules could force female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels to have to lower their hormones with medication or have to compete against men in certain Olympic events.
Initially the limitations will be enforced in middle distance races of 400 meters to one mile, events requiring the kind of speed, power and endurance that testosterone assists. I assume that if this compromise, for a compromise it is, gains acceptance, then the substitution of hormone levels for biological sex will travel to other realms of sport, as it should.
Duke law professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman makes a strong argument for the new rules in a column today in the New York Times. She writes in part,
“In competitive sport, winning and room at the top are what ultimately matter, so relative numbers are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there are 100 females and three males in a girls’ race if the three males win spots in the final or on the podium because they are males. The unusually high incidence of intersex athletes in the women’s middle distances and their reported 100 percent win share in the women’s 800 meters at the Olympic Games in Rio show their disproportionate power. Indeed, it is because they clustered in the middle distances that these events are the initial focus of the rules. Their supremacy was proof of principle. Testosterone readings outside of the female range were also found in the throws, but these were attributed to doping, not intersex conditions.
The I.A.A.F. is requiring that affected athletes lower their testosterone levels to within the female range if they want to continue competing in the middle distances in the women’s category. By definition, the required hormone therapy causes medically unnecessary physiological change, and no one should be forced to take drugs they don’t want or need.”
Taking the opposite position, Alice Dreger, the author of “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and One Scholar’s Search for Justice,” argues that the new rules are discriminatory and cruel:
Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner, is the world champion in the women’s 800 meters. But because of new regulations unveiled on Thursday by the International Association of Athletics Federations, she’ll never be able to win that race on the global stage again as a woman — unless she submits to medical procedures to alter her body…
To their credit, the I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. ..have also tried to make life less miserable for athletes who might be ruled ineligible to play as women. They have tried to make testing more equitable and confidential and to ensure informed consent before athletes submit to hormone-altering interventions.
They’ve also tried hard to tell everybody they’re not really judging anyone’s sex or gender when they test hormone levels. The I.A.A.F. says the new regulations are “in no way intended as any kind of judgment on, or questioning of, the sex or the gender identity of any athlete.”
But come on. How does telling a woman she can’t play as a woman, but “assuring” her that she might be able to qualify to run in the men’s race, not judging her gender identity or sex?
There’s no question that some athletes raised as girls and playing as women do not have female-typical bodies. Some were born with differences of sex development (intersex conditions) that mean their bodies have a blend of male-typical and female-typical traits.
A 2014 study by I.A.A.F.-affiliated scientists estimates that 7 in 1,000 elite women athletes have a Y chromosome with hyperandrogenism, a rate “140 times higher than expected in the general population.” And that 7 in 1,000 figure would be even higher if it counted all the differences of sex development that can cause hyperandrogenism.
But the truth is that no elite athlete’s body can be called fully “typical” in a statistical sense, and every other type of inborn advantage is allowed in sports. You can be born with natural advantages in terms of muscle development, oxygen processing, vision — all of those are allowed, without question. We’d never entertain the idea that Michael Phelps should be barred from swimming competitions because his extraordinary “wingspan” gives him an advantage….
All true. But compromises are like that: if this effort fails, and we continue to see transitioning women win wrestling titles while growing beards, and intersex competitors dominate races, then women’s sports competitions become a joke. On the other hand, I find it hard to find fault with Dreger’s complaints.
The last time I wrote about Castor Semenya (that’s her, leading the pack above), I opined,
“We can’t have special leagues and categories for however many gender categories science identifies and activists fight to have recognized, and there is no justification for creating artificial standards to eliminate outlier performers. The “solution” imposed on Caster Semenya—force her to take drugs that eliminate her natural advantage—is horrifying. How is this different from banging brilliant kids on the head until they have brain damage and no longer dominate their less gifted fellow students in school? What right do the sports czars have to declare an unprecedented, unique competitor unfit to compete because her, or his, unique qualities are advantageous? Why are so many woman condemning Caster as a cheat, when they should be defending her as a human being with as much right to compete as she is as anyone? Because she’ll win? Because it’s unfair that God, or random chance, or her own dedication rendered her better at her sport than anyone else?”
I ended up concluding that gender distinctions in sports had to be abandoned. I’m not so sure now. This is an issue torn three ways over the definition of fairness. What is fair here—to prevent gender anomalies from dominating women’s sports by requiring all competitors to compete within a consistent and controllable testosterone range…to allow individuals with natural advantages to use them to achieve athletic superiority…or to make all sports competitions open to everyone, regardless of gender, identification or hormone levels?