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In a patriarchal society men and women relate on unequal terms, and sports are but one aspect of a society in which masculine power is constructed and maintained. In sports people in superordinate roles see forceful, strong, able, independent women as a menace; thus, for these people maintaining and reproducing a myth of female frailty is a top priority, and they have reinforced this myth by “verifying” the sex of the world’s top women athletes. The body is directly involved in a political field, and its manifestations in sports spill over into social life and vice versa.
Prohibition of Women’s Sports
During the past century discourses surrounding gender and sports have certainly changed. Powerful male alliances in the medical establishment once ruled, and doctors were able to construct female physiological deficiencies and prohibit numerous physical activities for women. Today male control of the sports industry and its trivializing or obscuring media practices, combined with definitions of femininity linked to (hetero)sexual attractiveness and reproductive functions, propagates female subjugation and perpetuates women’s exclusion from “masculine” sports domains.
The “knowledge” historically espoused by the (male) medical profession was informed by the ascribed social positions of women and led to representations of their bodies as inferior, deficient, and incapable compared with those of men. Subsequently, the ideology of women’s sports became imbued with prohibitions and inhibitions. When women began to compete seriously in sports, people had concerns about the acceptability of certain sports because of women’s unique reproductive capacity. Throughout history middle-class women bore the responsibility of ensuring not only their own health but also the health of the ensuing generations. Women’s exercise regimes have been decided by doctors and prescribed to women with distinct class and ethnic biases. Although reproductive health was of paramount importance, doctors viewed the reproductive capacity of Anglo-Saxon, middle-class women as a more valuable commodity than that of their working-class, immigrant counterparts; the idea that some of these women might prefer to remain childless was unpardonable, and the fact that labor performed by working-class women might be just as demanding as sports was ignored. People have ex-pressed concern, never substantiated, that sports, particularly of the vigorous, competitive variety, would “masculinize” women physically, behaviorally, and psychologically. Sports were considered to waste women’s vital force and to disable them from completing the requisite reproductive and domestic duties associated with their gender. A curious emphasis on the incompatibility between sports and women’s breasts, which are thought to prevent women from making appropriate movements, is bound in medical control over women’s reproduction and sexuality.
The gradual increase in women’s opportunities to participate in sports and other physical activity has been tempered by precise constraints that set the boundaries beyond which young women should not attempt to move, thereby reafirming a dainty, delicate, docile femininity, the legacy of which is still a constraint on women’s experiences of their bodies.
Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
People often confuse and use inconsistently the terms sex, gender, and sexual orientation. The term sex usually refers to the dichotomous distinctions between male and female based on genetically determined physiological characteristics. Gender usually defines the psychological and cultural dimensions of masculine and feminine. Sexual orientation delineates one’s sexual attraction: heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. The process variously called “gender verification” or “sex testing” attempts to reveal an athlete’s sex; however, gender or sexual orientation ambiguity is the underlying reason. The sex of a petite figure skater, gymnast, or synchronized swimmer married to her (male) coach is rarely questioned. Women who excel at “power” sports are often considered masculine, lesbian, or not really women at all.
Sex testing is based on a simple gender logic that classifies all people as one of two sex categories: male or female. These categories are seen in biological terms, and they are conceptualized to highlight difference and opposition; in fact, they are called “opposite sexes.” Dedication and hard work are required to maintain a simple binary classification system because it is inconsistent with evidence showing that anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, and secondary sex characteristics vary in complex ways and cannot be divided into two simple categories. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other sports governing bodies have been willing to spare no effort to maintain a two-category system, which in effect maintains male supremacy and control over female bodies.
The participation of girls and women in sports has always presented a threat to the preservation of traditional gender logic. Because men are presumed to have an advantage in most sports, some people suspect that female athletes who do well may be men in disguise and present a threat to men’s domination. Consequently, girls and women have been excluded from playing many sports or are encouraged to play only sports that emphasize grace, beauty, and coordination.
Women are now allowed (by men) to participate fully in some traditionally male sports such as basketball and soccer and Olympic events in which athletes demonstrate speed and power; however, their femininity is often called into question, and forty years ago international sporting federations actually began “testing” women athletes to ensure their status as women. Although the practice was recently abandoned (1999), the most successful women athletes continue to have their sex, gender, or sexual orientation questioned.
Ancient Olympics—A Male-Only Club
The first Olympic sex test took place in ancient Greece and was instituted to keep women from disguising themselves as men. Athletes and trainers had to pass naked as they arrived at the ancient Olympics lest any women sneak in to watch or participate. The founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, actually wanted the Olympics to remain a male-only “club”; however, women slowly gained more and more rights to participation. Nineteen women participated in the 1900 games, and fifty-seven in the 1912 games. The number of women competing in the games has steadily grown along with the competitiveness of the women’s events. Of course, as the women competitors became fitter and/or more skilled, their performances became more “manly.” To cite a few examples, the 1988 Olympic record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle swimming event would have surpassed all men’s performances prior to 1972; the 15-kilometer women’s cross-country skiing standard in 1994 would have beaten all men’s marks before 1992; and the winning women’s 30-kilometer time in 1992 outstripped everything that men competitors had accomplished previously.
As women’s performance standards improved markedly, questions began to arise concerning the actual “femininity” of many of the supposedly women Olympic competitors. In fact, the IOC was chagrined to learn that three track and field champions who competed as women in the pre-World War II games eventually underwent reconstructive surgery to remove external, male reproductive structures. The IOC also had to retrieve the medals of a Polish sprinter who competed as a woman when it learned that she had male reproductive organs. After World War II, when the former Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries fielded rather formidable women’s Olympic teams (both in terms of performance and appearance), the IOC became concerned about widespread rumors that at least some of the “females” on the teams were actually male and began strict sex testing of all competitors.
In 1966 the IOC introduced sex testing; this testing continued to be controversial until its discontinuation thirty-three years later. The Olympic Charter (1983) stated that all competitors registered as women had to report to the femininity control head office. Initially, at every major championship, women lined up in the female medical officer’s waiting room. In turn each woman walked, passport in hand, into the examining room and dropped her towel, and examiners performed an external gynecological exam in order to issue the “femininity certificate” that allowed her to compete. Those competitors who failed to report could not take part in the games. Women competitors with a femininity certificate were exempted from another examination upon presenting that certificate to the femininity control head office. The certificate operated much like South Africa’s pass card during apartheid (racial segregation), which communicated the message to blacks that they are an underclass so suspicious that they require surveillance. Because women don’t need a special card in other walks of life, a sex test obliquely tells women that their success in sports is worrying, suspicious, or even unnatural. Many athletes found the external examinations invasive and offensive, and, in fact, the examinations proved to be ineffective. As technology advanced and women’s performances continually improved, the IOC moved on to other methods of sex testing.
Sex Chromatin Test
The sex chromatin test, which relies on the biological fact that cells of most females contain two X chromosomes, whereas cells of males contain one X and one Y chromosome, was first used at the Mexico Olympic Games (1968).The test consists of a simple cheek swab in which oral-cavity cells are painlessly scraped from the inside of an athlete’s cheek and then examined for the presence of the XX chromosomal constitution. This test was used from 1968 through 1992 despite its significant problems. It was unreliable, allowing some athletes with distinct “male” advantages because of their abnormal XXY chromosomal pattern to compete as women while basking in the benefits of increased strength and power afforded by their Y chromosome and subsequent high levels of testosterone. In the Journal of the American Medical Association geneticist Dr. Albert de la Chappelle reported that one in five thousand women has a hormonal imbalance called “adrenal hyperplasia,” which gives them the shape and muscular strength of a man despite their female genitalia and XX chromosomes. On the other hand, women who are ostensibly female were disqualified. Dr. de la Chappelle also recognized that six women in one thousand look like women, think they are women, have a body composition and musculature that seem entirely female, but “fail” the test because of their Y chromosomes. A condition called “androgen resistance” makes some XY women immune to the sexual-developing and strength-promoting qualities of testosterone and leaves them physiologically female despite the absence of the XX chromosomal constitution.
Finally recognizing that such problems existed, the IOC in 1992 decided to move on to more sophisticated tests that look even more closely at the genetic makeup of the Y chromosome with methods based on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). These tests were also a poor choice because, as mentioned, some XY persons are essentially female. Nonetheless, the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia, incorporated a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming process of “SRY sex identification,” which included screening of athlete DNA, confirmation of testing, and counseling of “detected” athletes.
The SRY sex-identification process still did not eliminate all the issues surrounding the accuracy of the tests, and at the 1996 Atlanta games officials reverted to the cheek-swab method. About one in four hundred females at the Atlanta games tested positive for male chromosomal material, but all tests were eventually ruled “false positives.” Eight women were permitted to compete because seven of them had androgen insensitivity, and the other had an enzyme deficiency, which effectively neutralized male sex hormones.
Men “Caught” Masquerading as Females
In a few cases men have disguised themselves as females; however, more often than not hermaphrodites or genetic males who have believed (or wished) they were females have been ruled against. German high jumper Dora Ratjen, who set a world record of 1.7 meters at the 1936 Olympics, was found in 1938 to have both male and female sexual organs. She was banned, and although she had lived as a woman previously she changed her name to “Hermann” and lived the rest of her life as a man. Two Frenchwomen on the 1946 European silver medal-winning relay team later were found to be living as Frenchmen. Claire Bresolles had become Pierre; Lean Caula had become Leon. Erika Schineggar of the Australian national ski team, who won the 1966 downhill ski title, was also “caught” with male chromosomes. Supposedly her male sexual organs had been hidden inside her body since birth. Later she changed her name to “Eric,” competed in cycling and skiing as a male while undergoing four genital surgeries, and is said to have married and become a father.
Women who have been “caught” as males often didn’t know about their Y chromosome and have suffered psychologically from the trauma of being disqualified from competition and having their medals revoked and success in sports discounted. Polish sprinter Eva Klobukowska passed a 1966 gynecological examination at the Budapest European Championships. After the introduction of sex chromatin testing, in Kiev at the 1967 European Cup, she was found to have extra chromosomes. Despite having a rare condition that gave her no advantage over other athletes, she was forced to return her Olympic and other medals and retired from competition surrounded by controversy. To avoid this development, it was proposed that any athlete who failed the sex test be rushed to the isolation ward of a hospital and that the news media be told that she had developed a highly contagious disease. Some women who “failed” the test were instructed to feign injury or actually were fitted with casts.
Abandonment of Sex Testing
In 1990 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing organization for track and field, called for the abandonment of gender verification and convened a working group of international experts, including ethicists, sports governors, physicians, and women athletes, in support of such abandonment. The group concluded that women with birth defects of the sex chromosomes do not possess an unfair advantage and should be permitted to compete as females. People who have been both legally and psychosocially female since childhood should be eligible for women’s competition regardless of their chromosomal constitution. The IAAF discontinued routine gender verification in 1992.
On the other hand, for an additional nine years, the IOC continued to ignore the compelling evidence that sex testing is discriminatory and traumatic for athletes with sex chromosomal disorders regardless of the method of analysis employed. Finally, because of the high frequency of “false positives” (eight out of eight women at the Atlanta games) and pressure from the IOC’s Athlete’s Commission, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Endocrine Society, and the American Society of Human Genetics, among others, the practice was abandoned for the 2004 summer games in Sydney, Australia, on a “trial basis.”
The IOC hasn’t completely eliminated its interest in the sexual anatomy of women athletes. The decision to suspend gender verification depended in part on the
opportunity for officials to gain a peek at athletes’ genitals during doping testing, which requires freshly voided urine. Gonadectomized (relating to surgical removal of the testes) males would pass superficial examination, of course, but such persons—as long as they were not doping themselves with steroids—would not be in a position to benefit from testosterone because the hormone would essentially vanish along with their testes.
A woman who excels in sports, although no longer subjected to sex tests, may still have her sex, gender, or sexual orientation questioned. With so much concern over which competitors are “real women,” the possibility that a woman athlete could masquerade as a male competitor and take home an Olympic medal has been completely ignored. Women may pretend to be men to gain status, safety on the street, the right to earn a living, and even the right to participate in sports. The rhetoric of women “failing” their femininity tests and being “caught” masquerading as males is embedded in a strict gender logic and masculine sporting hegemony (influence) that should be questioned.
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- Coakley, J. (2001). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Daniels, D. B. (1992). Gender (body) verification (building). Play & Culture, 5(4), 370-377.
- De la Chappelle, A. (1986).Why sex chromatin should be abandoned as a screening method for “gender verification” of female athletes. New Studies in Athletics, 1(2), 49-53.
- Ferguson-Smith, M.A. (1994). Gender verification. In M. Haines et al., (Eds.), Oxford textbook of sport medicine (pp. 355-366). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Fox, J. S. (1993). Gender verification—What purpose? What price? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 27(3), 148-149.
- Hall, A. (1981). The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women papers: Sport sex roles and sex identity. Ontario, Canada
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