clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

IOC and gender inquisition

While the IAAF has been backing and filling on the Caster Semenya case, many of us have been waiting for the IOC shoe to drop. Yesterday the shoe dropped. In Miami Beach, a panel of so-called "experts" convened by the IOC and the IAAF has announced from their imperial heights, "Athletes who identify themselves as female but have medical disorders that give them masculine characteristics should have their disorders diagnosed and treated."

In 1999, when the IOC finally agreed to end the old regime on gender testing -- after decades of growing outrage and resistance from athletes -- it was clearly a case of "too good to be true." Because the bugaboo of "gender," and the sports world's refusal to deal with it realistically, has not gone away. Over the last decade, it has gotten bigger and uglier. What Caster Semenya is being put through is a Joan of Arc type inquisition over gender. And now the IOC wants to do it to a lot of other women.

The experts insist that they aren't being "unfair" -- that they're only concerned about "athlete health." They said that these "disordered" athletes should be allowed to compete...but only if they agree to treatment. In other words, women's eligibility will now be determined on a case-by-case basis. Photographs of women athletes would be looked at. Any that look "too "masculine" will be shunted into actual testing to determine if a "disorder" is present, and recommendations for "treatment" would be made. If they don't agree, they can't compete.

I find the IOC proposal outrageous, and their stated concern for health is baloney. But perhaps its very outrageousness will make it self-destruct in a few years. Aside from how unscientific it is to refer to intersex as a "disorder," I will hope that widespread athlete outcry will once again put an end to this amped-up and extra-punitive new policy of testing.

The current Caster Semenya inquisition was fueled by the fact that a few women who got beat by her complained that she was "too masculine." The new proposal would open the floodgates to complaints by sore losers. After all, the question of who looks "too masculine" starts in the imagination of the beholder. What country fielding an international team would resist the temptation to complain about So-and-So from another country who may be able to beat their women because she looks a teensy-bit too narrow-hipped and muscular? Especially given the fact that intersex women are a larger percentage in sports than they do in the general population? The IOC may be so swamped by complaints, and by the resulting investigations, that the whole program might prove to be not only politically dangerous but also logistically unworkable.

It's all very well for some women to feel that athletes like Semenya have an unfair advantage. But Caster was just one woman. What will happen to international competition, politically, if numbers of women now have their careers disrupted by their gender being inquisitioned?

Oh, and who will pay for all this testing and treatment? And the inevitable lawsuits? Caster Semenya now has her own battery of lawyers, and somebody is paying their tab. I'll bet that the Semenya boondoggle has cost the IAAF and South Africa millions of dollars already, and it's not over yet. Multiply it by a couple dozen in a year, and it could break the bank. One of the reasons that the IOC stopped the old gender-testing on all women competitors was because of the colossal expense. And even if a women were found to need a "required" treatment, like surgical removal of undescended testes, how many of them could afford it?

The final question: whether men's photos should be looked at, for evidence of "too feminine."

It's clear that this obsession about women's gender is being driven by more than allegations of "unfair advantage." It's being driven by widespread cultural discomfort over how some women look when they're out there in front of the TV cameras. The fact is, victory in men's competition doesn't always depend on muscles and strength. There are men out there who frankly don't look all that "masculine." In some sports, a distinctive absence of "masculine" characteristics might actually give a guy an "unfair" advantage over other men. Like in figure skating, where a more feminine physique can give him extra flexibility and ability to execute artistic moves. Indeed, figure skating has been rumbling for years about an alleged "need" to make the sport more "masculine."

So the whole male arena of sport -- and the egos and careers of male athletes -- have, so far, been rigorously protected from gender scrutiny. In my opinion, this scrutiny should now happen. It's only fair that the torture instruments of cultural discomfort about gender appearance be applied to men as well. And I'll bet that, if enough male competitors -- and the nations sending them out there -- were to find themselves being figuratively "burned at the stake, " and the gold-medal prospects of a few outstanding male athletes destroyed, the way Semenya's might have been, the outcry would be such that the IOC will hastily backtrack.

I hope the IOC and IAAF wake up to how ridiculous and inhumane they're being.