Monday, July 28, 2008

Olympic athlete gender tests?

So I read this article in the NYT today.

The article asks at the end whether or not you think gender tests are appropriate. I have one question: what kind of person would be so consumed with the idea of winning an Olympic medal that they would a) cheat enormously and b) totally obscure their true identity in order to gain everlasting glory for a person that doesn't actually exist? Who do you share your gold medal with if you don't really know anyone because you've had to make up an alter-identity to become a gold medal-winning athlete?

I dunno. Just seems really far-fetched to me that this would actually be relevant at all. I feel like the number of people who are transgender and also Olympic-caliber athletes would be pretty small, considering that both those groups are tiny fractions of the population. Which means that for the most part these tests are totally superfluous. But who knows. Maybe I'm wrong?


moonrat said...

by the way, i should probably mention here that i'm going to get totally obsessed with the olympics.

Stephanie said...

"Experts at the lab will evaluate cases based on their external appearance and take blood samples to test hormones, genes and chromosomes."

OMG,wouldn't you be SO offended if you were a female and they thought you appeared..well, otherwise. Seriously.

ilyakogan said...

There is a famous story about the ancient Olympics. One year a woman disguised as a man won the prestigious running event. Greeks were so outraged that the Olympians were required to run naked from that point on. If it could happen then, it could happen now. Back then the stakes were even higher - the events were for men only under the risk of death penalty.

Matthew Dyer said...

I find the idea hilarious, since as usual, the term gender is being mistaken for being synonymous with sex.

Sex is the biological distinction between an animal with XX and XY chromosomes (as well as the unusual possibilities of XXXX and XXXY chromosomes).

Gender is the constructed identity that we often hang on top of sex.

So, for a gender test I'm imagining some kind of psychoanalytic test with lots of ink blots, dolls, and maybe some crayon drawings of families. Does little Billy want to play with cowboys, or does he want to dress up his cowgirl and play in the dreamy ranch house waiting for his ruggedly handsome cowhand to get home?

moonrat said...

matthew, haha, good point. thanks.

ilya--awesome story. i like that it's in the other direction.

Julia said...

Back in the day of the Soviet bloc, there were concerns that some of the Olympic athletes competing in women's events from those countries were men masquerading as women--not transwomen who were born men, but people trying to pass off a fraud.

This was especially talked about in regard to events that require upper body strength, like weightlifting and shotputting. The class of genetically male weightlifters does have an advantage over the class of genetically female weightlifters, because the XY genotype leads to a phenotype with (over populations) greater upper body strength.

The concern was that, in the then-Soviet bloc countries where athletes were trained full-time as part of "military special units" and whatnot, a male weightlifter who didn't quite make the cut for the Olympic team would be passed off as a female weightlifter, and because of his upper-body strength advantages he would defeat his female opponents.

This isn't so much a concern about transgendered folks (although there was some beef about whether it was fair for Renee Richards, a transwoman, to compete with ciswomen in the pro tennis tour after her transition; if she had done better on the pro tour, there might have been more energy around that) as it is about people who are male by both sex and gender masquerading as female in order to take advantage of the differences in XY and XX phenotypes.

Julia said...

Shorter version: This has been an issue since the 1970s at least.

And the lab is really a lab that tests whether someone's gender corresponds to their genetic sex.

Conduit said...

Julia beat me to it - I remember a fuss about this when I was a kid. There were some burly Russian ladies competing back then if I remember right...

writtenwyrdd said...

There have been cases of trans-gendered athletes, and I suspect that is what this is directed at. I cannot think of her name, but a woman tennis player in the 70s was a former man, and it brought up some issues like you mention in the news at the time.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, and the Russian/Soviet Bloc athletes. They were juicing, but the muscles on those lady swimmers and weight lifters. They really did look like men, and probably had to shave, too, given the drugs they had to have been using.

ilyakogan said...

As a former citizen of the Soviet Empire I can say that they were capable of anything. I'd believe that men were passing as women.

However my first cousin almost made it to the national level in swimming. I can tell you her story.

At the age of five her mother sent her to learn swimming to the 'Pioneer Palace' - this was the grandiose, Soviet style name for a gigantic after-school activity center.

She was good. Out of sixty or something six year olds five were sent to the special swimming 'sports school' where kids received the standard soviet education combined with up to eight miles of swimming every day.

At the age of ten three kids out of her class were selected to train with the trainer. In a couple of years one of them (not my cousin) was deemed to be the Olympic material.

What I'm trying to say is that they didn't need steroids. What they had was a massive multi-billion dollar athlete selection and training system.

Everything was government owned so nobody cared about the cost.

May said...

There was a case of an East German (I think) Olympian who had a sex change later on because of the drugs he/she was on (I'm not trying to be mean, but the person was a she at the time she was on the drugs, and yet, is no longer a she so which one do I use?). I think he returned the medals after.

Charles Gramlich said...

Well, I know there are at least two cases of men who tried to compete as women in the past.

Chris Redding said...

OMG,wouldn't you be SO offended if you were a female and they thought you appeared..well, otherwise. Seriously.

I don't know. Despite being obviously female I've often accused of having big brass ones!

ChrisEldin said...

Um, when did they stop the naked Olympics and why?

Cate said...

Another reason why I love equestrian events. They are the only Olympic events where men and women compete on totally equal terms.

Actually, I think that makes equestrian sports unique among all professional sports.

ilyakogan said...

Criseldin... I started digging for links to my woman winning the race story. And it looks like I got some details wrong:

It looks like an athlete's mother disguised herself as a male trainer to witness his performance but she was overwhelmed with emotions and was discovered after that even trainers were required to enter the stadium naked. Apparently they competed naked because it was easier to do instead of those sacks they called tunics. I tried one on once, they kept telling me that they were the most comfortable things ever - I hated it. :)

I think I liked the idea that the woman won better. :)

As for when did they stop running naked, I think it would be when they stopped the original Olympic games somewhere in the forth century. I think Christian emperors found them pagan and offensive, not just the naked part but the whole thing.

Honestly it's late and I don't want to dig for links. Look up Ancient Olympics.

Mommy C said...

I just love the idea of gender bending in sports. As a chick who formerly rode bucking horses (against the men) and served in the Cnadian Infantry, I wish I had only been smart enough to try and pass myself off as a guy. Life would have been a whole lot easier. And no, I am really not an XY type female ... honest.

angelle said...

unrelated to thispost but im catching up..

its cool that andromeda whats her name reads ur blog!

also, congrats on the deal..ull tell me abt it right?

bought a ton of ikea furniture today. blah. so nowi have a futon for u to crash on when u visit!

jjdebenedictis said...

The issue is actually a sensitive and valid one, it's just the press doesn't catch all the subtleties.

Issue #1:
A transgender woman might have more muscle mass and a larger lung capacity than a natural born woman, so is it fair to let her compete?

On the other hand, is it fair to not let her compete? That's the body she has, so if being an athlete is her life's dream, that's the body she has to use to pursue her dream. It's not like she's cheating; she's just unusual, and all really good athletes can be considered lucky freaks of nature. Swimmers with long arms and legs, big hands and feet, have a biological advantage over those who don't, but no one considers that cheating.

Issue #2:
Some women are born with two X chromosomes and one or more Y chromosomes also. Those extra Ys tend to be associated with characteristics such as greater aggression, competitiveness, and muscle mass, so women born with them might do extremely well as athletes.

Again, those women are not cheating. They're competing using the body they were born with, and like a swimmer with big feet, that body might give them some natural advantages over other competitors.

Such a woman could fail a chromosome check, however, but is it fair to subject her to the humiliation of deeper, and possibly public, investigation? She is a natural born woman, and she's done nothing wrong.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

There was the case of Stanislawa Walasiewicz, who changed her name to Stella Walsh upon emigrating to the US from Poland. Not an American citizen, she ran track and field in the 1932 Games for Poland and in the 1936 Games. She broke records and won a couple of medals. A Polish journalist accused Walsh of being a male, but the truth of this was not discovered until decades later in 1980 upon his death.

Mommy C said...

I just read on Yahoo news that an Indian athlete was stripped of their 2006 Asian games medal for failing a gender test. I think that many athletes are narcissistic, and let's face it, there are people everywhere who will do anything to be in the spotlight.

moonrat said...

the transgender issue aside, i just DONT UNDERSTAND what's to be won by faking your biological sex!

but i guess there must be some kind of pathological need for glory that drives olympic-caliber athletes, anyway, so maybe it's not a far cry to imagine.

writtenwyrdd said...

Obviously this is a really prurient topic. Somebody needs to use this in a story!

ilyakogan said...

Writtenwyrdd: I don't know about using it in a story. It's too real. I like art that transports me away from reality.

Julia said...

the transgender issue aside, i just DONT UNDERSTAND what's to be won by faking your biological sex!

Back in the 1970s, the concern (and I don't know how well-founded it was) was that athletes from totalitarian regimes would be pressured into doing it.