What Makes A “Woman” Athlete?

The International Olympic Committee struggles with the question:

The International Olympic Committee has a new rule this year for deciding who gets to compete as a woman. The IOC’s hope is to avoid a spectacle like the one that followed South African runner Caster Semenya’s victory in the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships. Semenya’s sex became a question mark amid speculation about her masculine-looking physique. She wasn’t allowed to compete for almost a year, and then she was reinstated without a clear explanation. Nobody wants to repeat that. The question, though, is whether the science is clear enough to justify the Olympics’ latest approach—and the answer is probably no.

Here’s the IOC’s plan: Women who test in the male range for testosterone, and whose bodies respond to the hormone, may not be eligible to compete as females. “May not,” because these women may also be allowed to lower their testosterone levels medically, as some say Semenya is now doing, though the IOC hasn’t confirmed that. The committee does not specify what testosterone level is disqualifying, in part because individuals’ measures can fluctuate. “We’ll leave those decisions with the experts,” Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the IOC’s medical commission, told the New York Times.

Read more about the numerous complexities that go into determining who should qualify as a woman athlete and why.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • otrame

    Wait a minute. You mean the difference between “girl” and “boy” may not be as simple as we always assumed?

  • Rilian

    I don’t see how it even matters. I can’t imagine someone taking on a whole new identity just to win a stupid contest.

    • andrewkiener

      I don’t think intentional cheating is the issue. AFIK Semenya has always identified as female and has decent physiological reasons for doing so. I also heard something to which I paid insufficient attention regarding how to handle a possible transgender Olympian (man-to-woman, post-operative I assume). It’s a question of whether it’s fair to bar competitors who are in the inevitable grey areas from competing as females.

    • Trebuchet

      I don’t see how it even matters. I can’t imagine someone taking on a whole new identity just to win a stupid contest.

      It’s actually been a really big deal in the past. The Soviets, Bulgarians, and particularly the East Germans were notorious for “female” athletes who didn’t appear female. Many of them disappeared as soon as the IOC instuted even the simplest gender testing, such as visual examination by a doctor.

      Most of these were probably natural women bulked up by massive doses of testosterone and steroids. Some were likely natural intergender persons as Caster Semenya. But at least a few were likely just men in disguise.

    • M Groesbeck

      @ Trebuchet —

      The Soviets, Bulgarians, and particularly the East Germans were notorious for “female” athletes who didn’t appear female.

      Why, hello there phallocratic Gender Police! Have you been informed of our Fuck the Hell Off and Go Away policy?

    • bandm

      Remember Spain’s Paralympic basketball team competing in the Intellectual Disability category in 2000? They were stripped of their medals for not being sufficiently disabled, and there were suspicions of another 5 medals being won fraudulently. If people will pretend to be Intellectually Disabled to win a medal, surely pretending to be a woman in no big stretch??

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheating_at_the_Paralympic_Games#Basketball_controversy

    • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

      M Groesbeck says:

      Why, hello there phallocratic Gender Police!

      It had nothing to do with gender identity in that sense. It was to do with status obsessed dictatorships attempting to appear best in everything, at any cost. The attitude of westerners wasn’t “ha ha! they’re ugly” but “they’re probably cheating“.

  • Dorothy

    What Makes A “Woman” Athlete?

    Athlete!
    No dangly bits.

    next question?

    • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.co.uk/ BecomingJulie

      Nowhere near that simple, I’m afraid. Try again.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty (Always growing and learning)

    If she identifies as female, she’s a woman. End of.

    • Rilian

      That’s what I’m saying. What the person is physically can be so complicated but still only in a few cases, so why even bother with it?

    • Interrobang

      Bullshit. There are a ton of people out there who claim to identify as women (gender) who aren’t female (sex) in any sense of the word, and it would be legitimately disadvantaging actual female athletes (as in, the ones who have physiologies within normative medical definitions of “female”) to let them compete in “women’s” events. The blog GenderTrender does a really comprehensive job of exposing a lot of these people.

      I personally do not want to see MTF transpeople competing against female athletes, because they will always have biological advantages — greater upper-body strength, longer reach, greater capability to add muscle mass, diminished capacity to gain/retain fat mass, different centre of gravity — over female athletes. I don’t see that as much different than allowing performance-enhancing drugs, or allowing female athletes to artificially supplement with testosterone for the purpose of gaining muscle mass, either. I also pretty much guarantee you will never see the opposite scenario, either — you will never see a FTM transperson even able to compete against male athletes at an elite level.

      This has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s perceived (and performative gender), either; I’m strictly talking about biological sex in this case. In the case of actually intersexed individuals, the line is a lot less bright.

    • Sassafras

      GenderTrender doesn’t do a good job of exposing anything but their own hatefulness. Getting your info on trans people from that site is like getting your info on gay people from Maggie Gallagher.

  • Brad

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renée_Richards (not the porn star) is a trans woman who played professional tennis and hardly dominated. One of the podcasts I listen to brought her up in the last couple months (godless bitches maybe? regardless,) and I agree with whomever it was, that it’s really not that big of a deal. Nobody other than Bender B. Rodriguez would transition just to win at sports.

    Notice that nobody seems to care about F-M athletes.

    • Brad

      I should add it seems like we’re all assuming the issue is that dude who loses to Usain Bolt all the time will claim to be a woman (or go so far as to transition) so *(s)he can actually win and not substantially transphobia in general.

      *the use of the (s) in this case is stylistic to reflect the branching hypotheticals in the paranthetical and non-paranthetical preceding statement, not to slur on anybody. (Natalie’s blog is the only reason I know anything about anything to do with trans issues.)

    • Rilian

      Yeah, noone mentions f-m because the assumption is that an m-f will be stronger than the competition and that’s why it would be unfair, but an f-m would just be making it harder on himself. There’s been lots of stuff about (cis)girls playing on boys teams in high school and stuff but the idea of a boy or a transgirl playing on the girls team? That’s crazay!!!! It’s maybe part of the assumption that males are better so therefore it makes sense for females to want to be like them, but not the other way around.

    • eric

      Notice that nobody seems to care about F-M athletes.

      Because the issue is really about steroid levels, not genetalia.

      I guess that’s one positive light on this whole debate; most of the people involved understand that the goal here is to prevent unfair competition that could result from different homone balances, not prevent transgenderism. Though I’m sure there is some of that too.

  • Alukonis, metal ninja

    I think just proof that you identify as female in your everyday life. I doubt any male athlete would be willing to deal with the amount of prejudice trans*women get just to try to win some athletic competitions.

    And hey if they do? Fine let them compete with the women. It’s not like they’re guaranteed to win, anyway.

  • FedUp(OrJustFed)

    I vote for a person whose sex chromosome is XX, rather than XY, or XXY, or XYY (those are the only permutations I’ve heard of)

    • Stacy

      Then what about an XY person with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS)?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_androgen_insensitivity_syndrome

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      XXX and X are also possible, though it’s unlike a X woman wiuld be an Olympic-level athlete. There’s also the issue of mosaics, where people will have different genomes in different cells. Besides, plenty of people are XY and women anyway because of reasons not entirely understood, but probably hormal. Natalie has written a lot about this.

    • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.co.uk/ BecomingJulie

      Again, it’s not that simple.

      Somebody can be XY and still all woman. I hope no-one will take it badly if I say you need not look too far for an example or two.

    • Trebuchet

      I vote for a person whose sex chromosome is XX, rather than XY, or XXY, or XYY (those are the only permutations I’ve heard of)

      The IOC used to do exactly that test, due to the suspicion of cheating by the Soviet block. They stopped doing it some years back.

  • FedUp(OrJustFed)

    @Stacy & Ace of Sevens: Thank you! Turns out there’s more permutations than I knew.

    Also, is there a way to reply to a reply? I didn’t see a link to do so.

    My only concern is to try to avoid unfair advantage. As I understand it, those whose sex chromosomes contain a Y are more sensitive to testosterone and similar androgens, which could provide a profound advantage in physical sports. While everybody has a different genome (twins aside and there’s subtleties there, too), some differences are both proximately and ultimately more potent, enough so that fairness may be considered compromised. It’s kind of like conflict of interest: it should not only be avoided, but the *appearance* of conflict of interest is to be avoided….just so in this instance.

    Not that I’d even consider forcing the world to apply my subjective standard. It is my thought, though, right or wrong…if right, to crow about *grin*, if wrong and I keep my mouth shut, how will I learn better?

    • http://www.mellophant.com The Flailing Rage Monkey: Caerie

      As I understand it, those whose sex chromosomes contain a Y are more sensitive to testosterone and similar androgens, which could provide a profound advantage in physical sports.

      It’s complicated, but sensitivity to sex hormones is independent of sex chromosomes. The presence of the Y chromosome will typically lead to the development of male reproductive structures and the absence of female reproductive structures in the presence of (and with sensitivity to) androgens, though even that isn’t a guarantee.

      Absent intersex conditions, testes will produce male hormones and affect the body. A trans woman with a Y chromosome who does not medically transition before puberty may develop a broader, taller skeletal structure than her cis sisters as a result of androgens released at puberty. However, once on female hormones, muscle tissue will fairly quickly respond to the change in hormones. If a trans woman medically transitioned before puberty, even her skeletal structure would be feminized. Height and breadth of the skeleton can’t be reversed by hormone treatment–and this is the result of hormones, not chromosomes–and this is where any potential advantage comes in for someone who began hormone replacement therapy after puberty.

      Since tall women aren’t excluded from sports and there is overlap in male and female height, it would be an arbitrary distinction to exclude medically transitioned trans women from competing as women.

  • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.co.uk/ BecomingJulie

    Real question: What makes a woman?

    This is something with which I am struggling, because I still sometimes have moments when I feel “not woman enough” or “not trans enough”. It’s akin to a sense of unworthiness, and it comes on top of the feeling of the wrong person looking back at you from the mirror.

    Gender is not something binary like an on/off switch, and it’s not a continuum between two extremes like a balance control. It’s a multi-dimemsional thing with many independent variables, more like a graphic equaliser.

    It’s taken time for me to accept that I am, in all ways apart from reproductive equipment, a woman. It’s almost intoxicatingly liberating to realise.

    • Interrobang

      Woman != female. You may be a woman, but you’ll never be female. People in this thread are really confusing performative gender with biological sex, and when it comes to athletics, sex is what matters, not gender. It doesn’t matter if you wear a dress in your everyday life, if you are competing in athletics, and you have a fundamentally male physiology, you’re going to have certain advantages over most females. (Females are going to have certain advantages over you, too, but they may or may not confer an advantage, depending on the sport.) End of story.

      I’m female, but frankly, calling me a “woman” might be a little bit spurious. Also, given what our culture thinks “women” are like, who in their right mind would actually want to be one?

  • kevinkirkpatrick

    The “ultimate” answer is incredibly simple, but probably far to revolutionary to merit real consideration: extend the already-existing protocol of “weight class” in certain events to include additional dimensions, e.g. a “testosterone-level” dimension (and perhaps a height dimension while we’re at it?). Then, do cross-population assessments to determine the contribution each of these dimensions has on the success of the average athlete for a given sport/event; and work out a formula that takes those values as inputs and returns a “physique” number from 1 to 3* that splits the population of athletes into roughly thirds. Then have all competition/medaling handled in terms of these physique classes. This would seem to level the playing field in as meaningful and fair a manner as possible, and totally removes all the wrangling over gender once and for all.

    *I say go with 3 classes just to (1) distance the system from men-vs-women distinction, while (2) adding no more complexity otherwise.

    • Comrade Svilova

      Yes! “Male” and “female” as proxies for how-much-testosterone-do-you-have are not useful measurements. A system like weight classes would be much more effective in making sure that competitors were matched fairly.

  • M Groesbeck

    I just remember what happened when a woman won an Olympic shooting event (which had until then been a non-gender-segregated set of events).

    All of a sudden, it was “discovered” that men and women had inherently different capabilities, and that not only must the genders be segregated, but that they must shoot from different distances, so that there couldn’t be any direct comparison. Because men would be totally diminished by the prospect of women out-performing them. Or something.

    • John Morales

      Sure. There should just be athletes, period, with no segregation whatsoever.

      The fastest runners, the sharpest shooters, the strongest weightlifters — regardless of sex.

  • kevinkirkpatrick

    John Morales – do you think there should be weight classes in weightlifting? Why?

    • John Morales

      Is the idea of weightlifting to see who can lift the most weight — i.e. who is the strongest person in absolute terms?

      Then no.

      Is the idea of weightlifting to see who can lift the most weight per kilogram of body mass — i.e. who is the strongest person in relative terms?

      Then no.

      Is the idea of weightlifting to see who can lift the most weight amongst groups of people with a particular range of bodymass — i.e. who is the strongest person out of a group of people?

      Then I suppose so. That way, multiple people can get gold medals!

      Do you think weightlifting should be sex-segregated?

      Why?

    • kevinkirkpatrick

      Is the idea of weightlifting to see who can lift the most weight amongst groups of people with a particular range of bodymass body type?

      Then I suppose so. That way, multiple people can get gold medals!
      ;-)

      Think of it this way: Imagine there exists 2 types of NASCAR vehicles: those engineered to be as fast as possible while meeting a requirement of being able to tow at least 10 tons, and those engineered for speed but having no towing requirements whatsoever. Furthermore, imagine that NASCAR drivers are randomly assigned one of the two types of vehicles the morning of the race day. How many races do you think there should be in order to most accurately identify the most skilled NASCAR drivers on race day? If we go with “two” races, what statements can we make about the relative skill levels of the top 3 finishers of the towing-vehicle race compared to the skill levels of the top 3 finishers of the non-towing-vehicle race? Extending this a step further, let’s say NASCAR drivers are randomly assigned one of the two types of vehicle for their career; and are never given the chance to so much as sit at the wheel of the other type. In general, how would you answer the question, “who are the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time?”. Would you think “Best Indy-500 time” would suffice to answer the question?

    • John Morales

      [meta]

      No, that’s not how it works.

      You asked me two questions, I answered them.

      I asked you two questions, you didn’t answer either.

      (It’s your turn)

    • kevinkirkpatrick

      I asked you two questions, you didn’t answer either.

      Question 1: “Do you think weightlifting should be sex-segregated?”

      Is the idea of weightlifting to see who can lift the most weight amongst groups of people with a particular range of bodymass body type?

      Then I suppose so. That way, multiple people can get gold medals!

      (The bolded statement can be interpretted as “YES”, sorry for being so opaque)

      Question 2: “Why?”

      Thought it was implicit in my response, but I’ll rephrase: I think the idea of weightlifting should be to see who can lift the most weight amongst groups of people with a particular body type.

      [kevins meta] Frankly, I find it kind of “trollish” that you would say “I asked you two questions, you didn’t answer either.” I specifically and deliberately answered your questions in the exact style with which you answered my first question. In your opinion, did you answer my first 2 questions about weight classes in weightlifting? [/ kevins meta]

      Moving on – your turn: There are 4 questions in my previous post, looking forward to your responses! Plus don’t forget my [meta] question.

    • plutosdad

      John Morales
      Actually size does matter, short people can squat a lot more compared to their body mass than tall people. While tall people have an advantage in the deadlift. It’s something to do about the length of the limbs acting as levers. I think that powerlifters tend to be short, shorter than strongmen at least (though part of this is all the squatting actually shrinks them over time).

    • John Morales

      kevinkirkpatrick:

      Moving on – your turn: There are 4 questions in my previous post, looking forward to your responses! Plus don’t forget my [meta] question.

      Bah. You are going to be disappointed, then.

      The point is that any ‘should’ is arbitrary, it’s just a sport and the rules are what the people running the competition make them.

      plutosdad, yes, and there are also other factors, such as where muscles attach to bones (the closer to the joint, the less leverage the muscle can exert).

      Fact is, however, that the extant rules are what they are, and they only consider sex and bodymass.

  • Donovan

    At first, I was in the “who cares if she used to be a man” category, but then I was hit by the realization that some regimes will force such surgery on its citizens to win the “admiration” of the world. Are there examples of my fear, or am I just watching too many Bond movies?

    • Sassafras

      Too many Bond movies. From what I can find, this just doesn’t actually happen, which makes sense because such a plan would easily fail, given how genuine trans and intersex women get scrutinized completely for any difference from cis expectations. It would be easier for a government to rigorously train an elite cis woman athlete than forcefully transition a man.

  • Leo

    Somebody can be XY and still all woman. I hope no-one will take it badly if I say you need not look too far for an example or two.

    Well, I’m married to such a somebody (with CAIS), so I don’t have to look far on a daily basis.
    Someone like that should be able to compete as a woman. The thing with women with CAIS is that their bodies don’t really process testosterone correctly (though my wife has been telling me about other CAIS women that are taking testosterone treatments…don’t know why or what the effects are or if this is some different type of testosterone…if there is such a thing). And it’s really the testosterone that helps men be *generally* better than women at sports. So since XY people with CAIS don’t really process the testosterone, then why should they have to compete with the XY people who can?

    Ultimately, the real issue is with treating gender as a binary thing, but I don’t really have a solution on how to fix this.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      That’s a good point on people with androgen insensitivity potentially being disadvantaged against people with average sensitivity. If we’re going to segregate sports based on many different biological characteristics, especially under the pretense of fairness, we have to take those kinds of factors into account.

      Personally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “fairness” in physical sports. No one chooses their genes or their childhood environment, so the factors which controlled whether one could become a great athlete weren’t ever really earned to begin with.

    • FedUp(OrJustFed)

      This is a more precise and correct way of saying what I was fumbling with, above.

  • daenyx

    I don’t think there’s a perfect answer, but I do think the best one is to stop at gender identity (some demonstration of the athlete living normally as their stated identity would be reasonable if there’s a serious question about it, perhaps).

    Any kind of attempt at a physiological or chromosomal definition unfairly disadvantages a significant number of woman-identified athletes anyway, particularly because elite woman athletes more commonly exist outside a clear binary on the gender spectrum. It would just be a choice of where to start the marginalization. On top of that, such a definition inevitably reinforces everything that is fucked-up about the concept of gender the world over.

    Yes, transwomen MAY have a physical advantage over ciswomen in SOME sports. (I will note, however, that at the elite level quite a large number of Olympic sports’ winners are determined much more by skill and dexterity than absolute physical power, so this possible advantage really is only a POSSIBLE one, and to suggest otherwise is to completely swallow the ridiculous notion that men are better at everything athletic always.) Transgenderism is, however, extremely rare – and likely much rarer than ciswomen with some arbitrarily “high” natural level of testosterone who would be disadvantaged by setting that kind of physical definition. And particularly considering that a transitioning or transitioned MTF is almost always on hormone replacement therapy since that is among the least difficult and invasive aspects of physical transition, is the “advantage” really that different from other innate physical differences that occur on the ciswoman spectrum? I don’t think so. Going by gender identity avoids the gender-binary-bullshit problems and disadvantages (probably) the least number of woman-identified athletes. (And FFS, transwomen get shat on enough the rest of the time that if just a few of them get one tiny advantage from their gender identity, I’m pretty sure the world would not end. :P Even for people pathologically attached to their privilege.)

    The obvious flaw in what I say here is that it doesn’t handle genderqueer-identified people unambiguously. My suggestion for dealing with that would be to use assigned birth gender, which is done by morphology, unless HRT has been undertaken.

  • Stacy

    I like kevinkirkpatrick’s suggestion @ #10, though I suspect more than 3 classes would be necessary.

    @ FedUp(OrJustFed), you’re welcome!

  • plutosdad

    I’ve thought for awhile that all athletes should be able to use hormones/ steroids to normalize to the same level (on the same food for baseline, since food affects hormone levels). Then athletes could compete on a more even level, depending on how hard they work out, how good their training system is, etc.

    That would go far to eliminate problems like this, but also go some way to lower “cheating” by taking steroids, since everyone would be taking them in the open. This would also make them a lot safer for the lower level athletes who don’t have personal doctors to monitor them and make sure they are taking the right drugs. Steroids are safe when administered correctly, the stories are all from men who are too young taking too many without supervision. THAT is when people harm themselves.

    • eric

      I’m not sure that cure is better than the problem. Here’s the issue with your ‘open competition’ idea: men produce (significantly more) testosterone starting at puberty. Do you really want young women atheletes taking steroids daily starting at 12-13 (or younger) just to even the field? IANA biologist but I’d be worried about the long-term physiological impact of that.

      And remember that for each success story, there’s going to be tens, hundreds, or possibly thousands of washouts (because that’s the way athletics work, for both sexes). So this isn’t just a case of a successful athlete living with their choices, its about lots and lots of people who realize at 16 or 18 that they can’t be a professional athlete, but being forced to live with the long term consequences of choices they made – with their parents and coaches – when they were 10, 11, 12, etc.

      I’m frankly good with drug limitations, even if it means some of our athletics have to remain separated by sex, with all of that system’s attendant problems (including the gray area problems that are the topic of this post). I think the combination of big money + very young competitors + legal steroid use would be, frankly, a much bigger problem.

  • DJMankiwitzc

    I for one am for replacing gender classes in sports with weight classes exclusively. By and large, most of those we consider “male” would still end up segregated from most of those we consider “female” via weight, with exceptions that challenge our expectations in that regard still being sorted based on physical ability instead of having to haggle over gender.

    That seems fairest to me anyway.


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