September 01, 2015

Why Does Gender Matter in Sports?

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

In 2009, I posted a blog about sex categories, intersex, sport, and cultural norms about identity.

Has much changed since then? In professional sports, categorizing eligibility to compete as a female is based on testosterone levels. They have moved from typing genitals—are the ”right” parts there? To chromosomes—is she an XX? To hormone levels—are her testosterone or androgen levels in the appropriate range that signifies female?

Is this an accurate way to assess someone’s sex? Are  these techniques adequate to signify sex? They certainly are not adequate for identifying gender. We tie sex to body types but, as we become aware of people who are born intersex, having only two sex categories may not be useful nor accurate. The same is true for transgender and gender identity, particularly since gender is a social construction that is tied to, but is not solely based on a physical definition.

The argument used in professional and other sports organizations is based on claims that they are not typing people as female or male, they are making decisions as to eligibility to compete as a female or male. These determinations change as cases are challenged and science advances our understanding of such phenomena.

The current policy rests with a statement about what is known as the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, per the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). The regulation is dated 2011, updated in 2014, thus it is a recent policy. The determination of whether an athlete can compete as a female rests with testosterone levels.

The basic presumption is that women who have more testosterone would have physical advantages since we assume that testosterone leads to muscle development and other physical distinctions that could be advantageous in sports activities. There is also language that states that they want to protect the health of such women who have hyperandrogenism (high levels of androgens) since it can harm their health if undiagnosed.

However, in July 2015, the International Court of Arbitration has made a decision in the case of Dutee Chand, whose natural levels of testosterone are evidently over and above the regulation amount.  They have suspended the Regulations regarding hormone levels for two years, to be validated by scientific studies that tie hormone levels to athletic performance.

There is research showing what androgenic hormones do in a human body, particularly in early development. Synthetic anabolic steroids and other substances mimic what androgens do thus they are used—illegally in most sports—to enhance muscular development and strength. However, do natural levels of androgens in a human body (regardless of sex) do the same thing that synthetic steroids do?  And, more importantly, does more strength always lead to a competitive advantage? Perhaps it does in weight lifting but, in most other sports, not necessarily.

So, if competing in a sports event as a female rests with testosterone levels, do they test every woman? Do we even know the natural variation of these levels for both sexes? Where is the line drawn that would bar women from competing? Are women whose levels are three or even four standard deviations above the mean allowed or barred from competing?


Stanisława Walasiewicz, the first woman athlete to be tested

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Do we test men on the same criteria? Would we bother worrying about whether men have enough testosterone to compete as a male? What about men who are three or four standard deviations above their mean? Do we diagnose them with hyperandrogenism in order to “protect” their health as we do with the women?

Should such men not be allowed to compete since they have a competitive advantage and could be at risk of health problems because of those high levels? Doping regulations might identify such high levels of androgens but what if those levels are naturally occurring? We don’t do surveillance with men the same way we do with women. In our culture, we still “protect” women from themselves while men are left alone to fend for themselves.

And, of course, as the ICA points out, has research demonstrated a link between hormone levels and athletic performance and advantage? And if we do see that, what do we do about it?

Long legs are an advantage in some sports. Do we not allow those with really long legs to compete? Should Michael Phelps and his amazing “wingspan” not have been allowed to compete in swimming because his body was anatomically built for swimming prowess?

The IAAF regulations include statements about transgender athletes who have had sex reassignment surgery. Female to male transgender athletes only need to show some identity paperwork that shows they are legally identified as a female. Male to female transgender athletes, on the other hand, have to be evaluated and approved by the IAAF. The evaluation, by an “expert medical panel”, includes medical records and endocrine testing of blood and urine to assess the levels of male (androgenic) hormones. If approved, the athlete is subject to further monitoring to assure hormone levels have not increased.

The policy is clearly linked to ideas that androgenic hormones give an athletic advantage.  That female to male transgender athletes are not tested at all raises an interesting point. They assume that they have lower androgen levels thus they wouldn’t have an advantage. Both the androgen levels (compared to the average of other male athletes) and potential advantages have not been clearly established.

We are learning about and slowly becoming more accepting about intersex and transgender, where a person may not be an XX female who identifies as a woman or an XY male who identifies as a man. In everyday life, this may actually be an easier challenge than in sports, where we segregate all activities by sex and gender. American Ninja Warrior does not segregate the genders. Its physical challenges reward upper body strength and that does give some men an advantage over some women.

How do we move forward and ensure sports competitions become more egalitarian rather than discriminatory?


insightful post.

Nice article for women empowerment in Sports

Great post

sometimes it is okay and other times it is against the right of a person

i didn't know that gender matters in sports, now i know

very informative blog

Nice info, very good explained

Hey, I am here liking your blog. Its so inspiring

Highly Informative Article. Keep posting in the future also.

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