Jon Bardin in the LA Times on Olympic sex testing

Jon Bardin writes in two well-researched articles in the Los Angeles Times on sex testing in the Olympics.

In “Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women” he writes on the experience of Spanish athlete Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño, who recently co-wrote a paper on sex testing with OII global chair, Hida Viloria:

Consider the Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño. A gender test revealed that she had a Y chromosome, which normally makes a person male. She also had complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, or CAIS, which prevented her body from responding properly to testosterone and caused her to develop as a woman.

The Spanish Athletic Federation got her test results in 1986, just before a major competition that would have set her up for an Olympic run. Though she won the 60-meter hurdles, the federation declared her ineligible for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.

The International Olympic Committee has struggled with cases like these, variously using hair patterns, chromosomes, individual genes and other factors in their long-running attempts to distinguish men from women. All of these tests have been discarded…

The new rules focus on testosterone levels, even though there’s no research on testosterone in healthy women, only women who have a health concern.

But if testosterone were essential to athletic success, Martinez-Patiño would have been doomed to fail because her body can’t use the hormone. Many women with androgen insensitivity have competed in the Olympics, and “the idea that testosterone is a necessary ingredient for elite athletic performance is really undermined by these cases,” [Sari van Anders, University of Michigan biopsychologist] said.

In fact, androgen insensitivity is overrepresented among female athletes, [Eric Vilain, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA] added: The general population has an incidence of 1 in 20,000, but for Olympic athletes it is about 1 in 400. No one knows why.

His second paper, “Is sex testing in the Olympics a fool’s errand?“, focuses on the impact. It also brings to light additional information on Caster Semenya’s case, which we hope has her consent:

The stakes are high because there is evidence of collateral damage when a test becomes public. Both Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño and Caster Semenya’s testing became public, and both of them reported undergoing significant associated trauma. Such tests are usually requested for athletes because of their physical appearance, and judgment is often rushed. When Semenya was tested, one athlete told the press that “these kinds of people should not run with us.” A writer for the New Yorker, clearly fond of alliteration, called her “breathtakingly butch.”

…Perhaps deepening this point is a little-mentioned part of the new rule: Athletes who fail the test may compete but as men or must determine a way to get their hormone levels down below the male range — something newspaper reports have said Caster Semenya has been doing.

According to Hida Viloria, director of the Organisation Intersex International, such therapies amount to “an athlete doing an experiment on themselves,” and she likens the new rules to “bullying against butch women.”

“It’s forcing women who are not stereotypical to feminize their bodies,” she said.

Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford bioethicist who recently wrote an influential critique on the topic with Jordan-Young, said the bottom line is that attempts to deal with sex with scientific tests amount to putting a round peg in a square hole. She points out that there have been no confirmed cases of men posing as women in Olympic history and that Caster Semenya, who reportedly had three times the normal amount of testosterone for a woman, would not have qualified for a men’s race if it had been required at the time and has not even been consistently superior to other women in her sport.

We have heard a suggestion that the IOC is trying to bring its policy on testosterone levels in women into line with its policy on trans women – but there’s a clear difference: women like Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño and Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete as they are, as they were born and raised, without allegations of doping, or hormone treatment to make their bodies conform to gender stereotypes.

Katrina Karkazis describes this as “a solution in search of a problem”, and we agree.

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