The Olympics Is Unsure What It Means For A Woman To Be A Woman. | Gradient

The Olympics is unsure what it means for a woman to be a woman.


Many moons ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) began questioning the sex of female athletes if they looked a little too “masculine” fearing that they may have an unfair advantage. They started to test all women who wanted to compete, beginning with nude parades in 1960 where females would walk around naked in front of female judges. They quickly eliminated that practice due to issues with atypical genitalia, which led them to switch to testing chromosomes in 1968. Then, those tests were stopped because a lot of people have physical characteristics that don’t match their chromosomes. So, we’re left with the IAAF’s current standard: Testing levels of natural testosterone.

In case you forget everything from Biology 101, every female has some testosterone produced by their ovaries along with estrogen, but some females naturally have a higher amount of it. Women testosterone levels are typically 30 to 95 nanograms per deciliter, while men are between 300 to 1,200. The IOC claims that men’s testosterone is what makes them better athletes, which is why men and women don’t compete against each other in the Olympics.

So the problem with testosterone testing arises in a few ways. First, the debate over what qualifies a woman as a woman.  Are women with high levels of testosterone a man or just not a feminine enough? And can someone be penalized for something they’re born with, like having long muscular legs and big feet? Why does the IAAF get to decide? The second: does having higher levels of testosterone give you a large competitive advantage?

The most relevant case against IAAF’s testosterone policy is on behalf of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. In 2014, her gender was questioned, and after her testosterone levels had been tested, she was disqualified for competition.

From the New York Times:

“Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual,” Chand told me. “I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation.”

Obviously motivated by the huge effect this had on her life along with the encouragement from health organizations for the past two years, she has been fighting for her right to compete. Meanwhile, the debates about issues surrounding her gender have been intense. It’s a mess, and you can read all about the dirty details on The New York Times or FiveThirtyEight if you so desire. In short, the court is allowing her to compete for now because they didn’t feel that IAAF could scientifically prove that higher levels of testosterone correlated with better performance in women athletes.

Their exact statement was this:

“While the evidence indicates that higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone may increase athletic performance, the Panel is not satisfied that the degree of that advantage is more significant than the advantage derived from the numerous other variables which the parties acknowledge also affect female athletic performance: for example, nutrition, access to specialist training facilities and coaching and other genetic and biological variations.”

The three judges suspended the policy until July of 2017, concluding that asking women like Chand to adjust their bodies against their nature is “unjustifiably discriminatory.” In 2017, the IAAF will have a second chance to prove that women with high amounts of testosterone are comparable to a man’s natural advantage. If they are incapable of doing so “the regulation shall be declared void.”

Since the ruling, the IAAF created regulations for transgender athletes but have yet to release any new information about testing women for testosterone. We’ll see what happens next July.

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