Tuesday, June 19, 2012

International Olympic Committee or Gender Police?

Okay, so I know that's kind of an inflammatory headline, but this is a blog so deal with it. I honestly don't know how I feel about part of the debate around the IOC's attempt to protect women from competitors who aren't female enough by enacting new regulations that will test female competitors testosterone levels. I haven't entirely made up my mind on all of these issues so I'm going to be incredibly honest here and see if anyone is willing to do the same and share their opinions on the matter.

First off, here is the part I can readily say is bullshit: the method of testing. It turns out that testosterone is not even remotely a good marker for this type of testing. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis explained in an article for the NY Times:
Testosterone is one of the most slippery markers that sports authorities have come up with yet. Yes, average testosterone levels are markedly different for men and women. But levels vary widely depending on time of day, time of life, social status and — crucially — one’s history of athletic training. Moreover, cellular responses range so widely that testosterone level alone is meaningless.
Testosterone is not the master molecule of athleticism. One glaring clue is that women whose tissues do not respond to testosterone at all are actually overrepresented among elite athletes.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, there is no evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones.
In case you're wondering where they got the authority to make such claims (I was curious), it appears that they coauthored a study recently published in The American Journal of Bioethics titled "Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes." Full text is available hereBasically, there is no evidence that having more testosterone increases performance in athletics. 

(More info and my struggles after the jump.)

This leads me to question the motives behind the sex testing in the first place. If it has been shown that hormone testing is ineffective as a method of determining athletic performance, what are we really hoping to accomplish by using this ineffective method? In the end, Jordan-Young and Karkazis pose an excellent question: 
What about letting go of the idea that the ultimate goal of a fair policy is to protect the “purity” of women’s competitions? If the goal is instead to group athletes so that everyone has a chance to play, to excel and — yes — to win, then sex-segregated competition is just one of many possible options, and in many cases it might not be the best one.
I'm glad I'm not the only person who feels the motives behind this testing are suspect.

I wonder what other groupings the authors might propose, and honestly I would love to hear them. Maybe they would be based on the sport itself. So we would have weight groupings for weight lifters, wrestlers, and runners. Maybe ice skating would be age grouped. Or maybe things would be grouped based upon the socioeconomic status of the country until we can see fit to level that playing field. It turns out that has a greater affect on athletic performance than hormone levels. Jos, in an excellent piece over at Feministing, paraphrases Bruce Kidd:
The countries with the highest GDP produce the most gold medals. The richer the athlete, the higher the likelihood of a winner, says Kidd. In other words, the salaries of your parents are a more accurate success indicator than testosterone.
It doesn't get much clearer than that. Honestly, I don't think the best solution to this issue is to try an affirmative action approach, but it seems to make more sense than choosing an arbitrary and ineffective sex marker like hormone levels and running from there.

Of course, then we also have the offers to "help" those women who don't fall into the accepted hormone levels. This is one of the more disturbing aspect of the regulations. Over at Time Meg Handley reports:
At the conference in Miami, the IOC made little progress in drafting concrete guidelines to help sports federations handle athletes with what some doctors call "disorders of sex development" (DSDs). But it did recommend establishing "centers of excellence" around the world that would be equipped to treat athletes with DSDs. IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist says the centers would offer everything from hormone therapy to surgery.
The article continues on to discuss why the treatments themselves are problematic, especially for athletes. In addition to the obvious problems, I find this further distressing for multiple reasons. The language here seems to think that all athletes with DSDs would be able to receive treatments, but everything I've read seems to indicate that the regulations and testing would apply only to female athletes. The other becomes apparent as we read on in Handley's article: 
 Panel participant Dr. Eric Vilain, professor of human genetics, pediatrics and urology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, points out...  the ethical question of whether physicians should artificially alter hormone levels in athletes with the disorder to "level the playing field."
Is anyone else getting flashbacks to reading Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron?" Any time the real world begins to mimic a dystopian fiction, I worry. And this is certainly worry-some. When we begin artificially introducing substances into people's bodies in order to counteract a perceived (but possibly not real) genetic advantage, we are venturing into some seriously grey-looking ethical areas. 

So these are all things I have fairly strong feelings about, but I am stuck on how to fix the problem. Obviously it is unfair to force medical treatments on people who fall within the normal spectrum of hormone levels. Especially since these tests (if they were effective, which they're not) are based on the idea of a gender binary which is a very limited view of reality and excludes many people, including those who are intersex or trans. (Sorry, I got a little link happy.) 

Where do we go from here? How do we ensure sports remain competitive without being discriminatory? I didn't address the idea of trans men and women playing sports with cis-gendered men and women, mostly because I have zero authority on this and don't have any good ideas to contribute to the conversation.  I would love to hear input from folks on these issues and thoughts on how you would move forward if you ruled the world (or just the Olympics). 

Shout out to Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel for her two articles on this issue. 

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