Defining Gender In Sport

Given that the dreaded Olympics have once again cast their dark cloud over us, raining fire and nationalism as the rivers run red with the blood of those who blaspheme the sanctity of LOCOG, I thought the timing was right to have a bit of a discussion about the issue of how gender and sex are determined and defined in relation to sports, and the segregation of athletes into female or male competitions.

This is something pretty firmly connected to transgenderism in the collective consciousness. We’ve all heard jokes about men posing as women, or “getting sex changes”, in order to compete in the women’s divisions in order to gain an athletic edge. We’ve seen this concept explored in TV, too, in shows like Futurama and Strangers With Candy and The Simpsons, often as an excuse to drag out some very typical, very easy transphobic gags. There is, altogether, an imagined concept that this is a thing, something that happens, one of the reasons people “get sex changes”.

But does it really have much substance? Or is it as divorced from reality as fears that men will pose as trans women in order to infiltrate bathrooms to listen to YOUR DAUGHTERS go pee (!!!!!1!) DUN DUN DUNNNN.

And why does it matter? Why are we actually segregating male and female athletes in the first place?

Fears of this kind of thing are probably as old as the initial development of female athletic leagues, and connected to the concept that men have an inherent edge in athletic competition (leaving aside the obvious truth that a trained woman at peak athletic ability in her chosen sport is going to wipe the floor with a male amateur). But actual realities on which it hinges are pretty few and far between.

The practice of gender verification in sports didn’t begin until the 1950 Olympic games. Prior to that, there had only been one alleged instance of anyone “abusing” the segregation of male and female competitors, German high jumper Dora Ratjen in the 1936 games. They were determined to be “really a man” by German police after investigation following their success in the European championship two years later. Dora, however, was not a man posing as a woman for the sake of an “athletic edge”. They were indeed born Dora, and had been assigned female at birth on account of ambiguous, intersexed genitalia. Dora genuinely believed himself to be female, having been raised as such, until early adolescence when a physician determined his actual sex to be male. This being Germany in the 1920s, although Dora was aware of the truth, he and his family decided that he should continue living as female, given the embarassment and confusion changing any of that would entail. Dora didn’t begin living and identifying as a man (taking the name Heinrich) until much later in life, after his athletic successes had led to his history being exposed.

(Prior to this, in the 1932 Olympics, there was a Polish runner and gold-medalist named Stanislawa Walsiewicz who after her death in 1980 was found to be intersex, with partially developed male genitalia)

Gender testing didn’t become instituted until 1950 by the IAAF for woman athletes in the lead-up to the European championship. One woman, a Dutch sprinter, was expelled from her national team due to refusing a test, and was later to be found to be intersex by way of mosaicism, posessing both 46 XX and 46 XY cells. Gender testing did not, however, become a part of the Olympic games until 1968, and it arose primarily in accordance with unfounded suspicions that various Soviet nations were submitting male athletes to compete as women.

Gender testing was common in the Olympics from that time until the 1996 Atlanta games, where it was finally discontinued (possibly a result of 8 athletes having “failed” the gender test only to be cleared by subsequent physical examinations). Throughout the decades of gender testing being a common practice, it never once revealed a male athlete posing as a woman in order to cheat. In every single instance it was a result of intersex conditions, all but a very, very few (like Ratjen) being of the kind that couldn’t conceivably lead to an “unfair” athletic edge.

Many of these athletes were likely unaware they even were intersex until submitting to the tests. Can you imagine facing that? Losing your dream in that way?

Controversies, however, persisted even after the discontinuation of widespread gender testing (Olympics officials reserved, after 1996, the right to conduct testing in individual cases that they deemed exceptional). One of the most notable was that of South African middle distance runner and gold medalist Caster Semenya, who was singled out for highly publicized gender testing that had severe consequences for her career and ability to pursue endorsements. These were motivated by suspicions that seemingly had no substantive cause other than her not looking sufficiently “feminine” under certain standards (something undoubtedly connected to the racial biases implicit in standards of “feminine” appearance) and her significant talent. After the damage had already been done, the results of these tests while not being revealed did not result in her disqualification, leading one to the assumption that she was never anything but a just a particularly talented female athlete who wasn’t normatively feminine enough to be trusted.

Throughout the history of gender testing in sport, and notably in the Olympics and other international championships, from the very inception of the practice as a product of cold war paranoia meeting misogynistic notions of athletic ability all the way through recent controversies like Semenya, it has always been deeply and unmistakably connected to questions of racism and national distrust. Which women are or are not suspected, or singled out for testing, or used as reason to insist upon the practice in the first place, has always been connected to which nations and races are on the receiving end of hostile, prejudicial attitudes on the part of whichever powers currently hold the most sway over the governing bodies of those competitions. Whoever is seen as “exotic”, “unfeminine”, “sneaky” or “untrustworthy” enough to have the mythic paranoid fantasy of cross-dressing cheaters projected onto.

It is notable, also, that this fantasy, and along with it the notion of gender testing’s necessity, and every serious application of the process, has exclusively been applied to female athletes, never men. Male competitors have historically simply assumed to be “really” men, simple as that. There’s a lot of misogynistic subtext here, and not simply the assumption of men’s “inherently” superior performance in athletics. Along with it is the idea that athletics is a “male” domain, and being an athlete is a “manly” thing to do. Being an accomplished, competent, talented, driven female athlete somehow immediately calls the legitimacy of a woman’s sex into question, while the same qualities and pursuits in a man only reaffirm the legitimacy of his own.

Something worth questioning is whether or not the concept of men having an inherent advantage over women in athletics is really as certain as we assume. It seems like an intuitive thing, “common sense”, in that men are generally taller, heavier and bulkier than women, and testosterone has a serious, noticeable, documented effect on the development and maintenance of muscle, functioning not unlike a “performance enhancing drug” in this regard. However, like all instances of “common sense”, we have to be careful about assuming things are as clear-cut as they seem.

Not all sports are all that dependent on muscle, height or weight, and there are many in which there’s a cap on the point at which these things became advantages, a cap which theoretically can fall well within the range attainable by elite female competitors. Men and women also typically have different centers of gravity, different levels of flexibility and balance, that don’t always fall down a line where men come out ahead. There are many sports, such as those heavily based on stamina and endurance, where the general physiological differences between sexes even out to not being a significant factor.

There are easily quite a few sports that could be desegregated without conferring any real disadvantage to female athletes.

It’s arguable that even in those sports where things like height and weight become relevant factors, the competitions could be broken up and classed in accordance with the actual factor rather than doing so by proxy through gender. For instance, imagine having basketball leagues broken up not by sex but by maximum or minimum height of the players. There might still be issues with mass, weight and injuries, but these could be accommodated by adapting the rules about charging, drawing fouls, and those fouls most likely to result in injury. One could also just have women generally play guard positions with men playing forward.

To be honest, a “6’1 or under” basketball league could probably be more interesting than the NBA, in that it would get rid of a lot of the cheesier plays.

Gender desegregation, however, is not necessarily going to be the ideal solution, and I imagine that most athletes would be uncomfortable with its proposal as a solution even in those sports where sex is a minimal factor. And the athletes, honestly, are who I think we should care most about. However, I don’t think cis athletes should universally take precedence over trans and intersex athletes. An attitude as surprisingly common as it is suprisingly callous is that trans and intersex athletes should just plain not be permitted opportunities to compete, or should simply be given “their own competitions” (which seems fine, until you remember how few of us there are, and what an enormous “fuck you” that would be to elite competitors who are talented and driven enough to pursue their sport on the world stage rather than simply dominating little local gender-variant softball clubs or whatever). And really, there ARE sports where sex definitely IS a serious factor… if North American football were desegregated, it would completely cease being viable and safe for female athletes, no matter how talented, to play on the professional level. Which, again, is not fair to the athletes.

So, like it or not, we have to find ways to define gender/sex in sport.

I’ve talked to some people who believe it should be as simple as the way we define gender in day-to-day life, within trans-friendly circles. You initially just judge by presentation, and if there’s ever question or ambiguity, you politely, discretely ask. What takes precedence over anything else (like hormones, genitals, dress, hair, facial hair, breasts, whatever) is always self-identification. The idea, applied to sport, would be that each athlete would simply be asked how they self-identify, and those who identify as female would play in the women’s competitions while those who identify as male would play in the men’s. Easy-peasy.

Except… as lovely a notion as that is, and as much as I wish we lived in a world where that could work, I don’t think it would. Even though there is absolutely no historical precedent of men “cheating” by disguising themselves as women, it’s not unthinkable, in the context of elite events like the Olympics, for someone to take advantage of a system that easy… even if only for the sake of the fleeting notoriety and infamy it would generate. More likely, though (which is not to say it would be common or widespread, just something that needs to be considered) is the possibility pre-op or non-op trans competitors taking advantage of that system such that they’d be able to go off their HRT when training and competing and thereby gain an advantage.

And what’s very, very likely is that just the possibility of that kind of thing breeding widespread hostility, suspicion, contempt and resentment, added on top of existing cissexism, transphobia and gender binarism, which would create a pretty awful environment for trans and intersex athletes to compete in. As much for the sake of not-quite-binary athletes as for the sake of the sport, some kind of way of making everything feel like a roughly even playing field, physiologically, seems important. Some kind of actual definition and line, drawn as fairly as it possibly can be, for what “female” and “male” mean in the context of athletics.

This line has historically often been drawn in very absurd, silly ways that really were purely symbolic, and had no connection to the actual physiological differences between men and women that could affect athletic performance. Instances of how trans athletes have been permitted to compete professionally as women come to mind, such as Renee Richards, in which the justification for that permission was based on their having undergone lower surgery. This policy, that trans women could compete as women as long as they’d had SRS, was connected to all the usual problems that employing SRS as the line between “real” women and not, like the exclusion of people who don’t desire SRS or don’t feel its worth the expense and hassle, the exclusion of those who can’t afford it or can’t undergo it for medical reasons, and then obliging anyone who would want to compete professionally to meet all the deeply problematic systems of gatekeeping that surround access to SRS. But it is also absurd in that the presence or absence of a penis, testes or vagina has no bearing whatsoever on athletic ability.

And a lot of the time, even that hasn’t been enough to satisfy cis athletes and have them accept a trans woman as legitimate competition in a female event.

Michelle Dumaresq is another well-known trans athlete who was the subject of considerable controversy. She was an accomplished, professional mountain biker from Canada who, despite having had SRS and having been on HRT for a long period of time, thus meaning she’d absolutely no meaningful advantage over her competitors at all, was nonetheless subject to considerable suspicion, resentment and efforts to have her removed from competition. A lot of the attitudes surrounding her, often from athletes she was racing alongside / against, were utterly steeped in the usual transphobia, such as the tired old fears that trans women somehow pose a threat to the safety of women’s spaces. There was also plenty of other cissexism, including the prioritzation of cis women’s comfort, the “makes women uncomfortable” trope (I’ve lately noticed there’s a deeper level of trans-misogyny and even de-gendering present in this attitude. It’s in the phrasing: makes women uncomfortable. There’s an implication that the cis women are the only party who are women, along with the larger implication that so-called women’s spaces “belong” to cis women. The thing is, being excluded from women’s facilities, spaces, groups, events and competitions.. that also makes women uncomfortable).

However, it seems like being able to point towards the biology, the medical fact that Dumaresq wasn’t in any meaningful or significant way different from the women she was competing against, was vital to her being able to successfully compete and, all in all, be accepted as a legitimate competitor in her sport. And I can’t help but imagine that education on these facts, and helping build a concrete, working understanding of what aspects of sex do and don’t affect performance, and how transsexual bodies do and don’t differ from cissexual bodies, can only help. That understanding these things, and building working definitions, can over time ease the difficulty faced by athletes like Michelle Dumaresq or Caster Semenya.

I think for now focusing on whether or not an athlete is endocrinologically female or male seems like the best solution, at least until something a bit better comes along. Testosterone, after all, is the factor that creates the largest difference between men and women in the context of athletic performance. It’s certainly a far more meaningful factor than genitalia. It’s not perfect, as not all trans people can or choose to undergo HRT, and not all intersex people will have hormones within the broader range recognized as that of whatever sex they wish to compete as, but I honestly think it is the best option without having to face the far more thorny, difficult and complex sociological problems that would go with choosing not to locate some objectively measurable definition. After all, while HRT is not a universal aspect of medical transition, it’s the most common, widespread and accessible of transition-related medical treatments.

Roller derby has successfully adopted this model, wherein anyone whose hormones are within a generally female range (allowing for atypicality, but not extreme atypicality that crosses over into the male average) is permitted to compete on women’s teams. If I remember correctly, things like gentials and identification aren’t considered important, so non-op trans women, people with non-binary identifications, and trans men who don’t or don’t yet have male hormone levels, are all permitted to compete (with the male teams, presumably, accepting those whose hormones fall in the male range, similarly disregarding identification). It’s also my understanding that testing isn’t mandatory, only when requested by other athletes who might have feel things are a bit unfair. It’s not an ideal system at all, but it seems a whole lot better than anything we’ve yet had.

I also hear the Olympics have recently instituted hormone testing as part of how they conduct gender tests when such tests are requested. I read an article saying this had the unfortunate side-effect that some women are now taking HRT and anti-androgens in order to suppress their testosterone levels to within the range accepted by by the Olympic definitions. That, in and of itself, suggests that this system is not being applied properly; it should allow for exceptional hormone ranges, given that athletes, by definition, are physiologically exceptional, and only be a loose system whereby you’re making sure the hormones aren’t in the male average, not simply above the female average, and there should be at least a bit of gray area if defined properly. But what also worries me is that I understand this is only being instituted as an addition to prior Olympic standards of sex/gender definition. All the old potential disqualifiers, such as chromosomal or genital abnormalities, remain in place. This means it doesn’t make things any simpler, any easier, any better for any athletes. It just makes things stricter and harsher… so strict and harsh that now, apparently, cisgender, completely binary women are being forced to modify their physiology to meet the standards.

Of course, it’s not exactly surprising to see Roller Derby be an example of how to deal with gender in sports in a good, functional, queer-and-trans-friendly way, and for the Olympics to be an example of how to deal with it in a creepy, complex, byzantine, strict, debilitating way.

Hooray for the Olympic spirit!

At least we do now have some examples of doing things a bit better. That’s often the hardest step… for someone, somewhere to have a better idea, and to actually make it a reality, however small. A small reality at least provides something to guide the rest of us forward. And failing that, it at least provides hope for those who might otherwise abandon their dreams for fear of being unwelcome where they could be realized. That’s more than enough to make it worth fighting for.



  1. Mym says

    I’m still not happy with the WFTDA solution, since it’s yet another instance of requiring a Note From Our Doctor and it’s not evenly applied – only trans women have to provide it if asked. Worse, it’s a policy for *interleague* play – local leagues can have any acceptance policy they want, including transphobia.

    • says

      Well… that’s obviously something that should be improved, but none of that is essential to the concept (like obvs it shouldn’t be something only openly trans athletes are subjected to), and it still beats the hell out of most athletic policies.

      My point is that provides a starting point and model for working towards a real solution. Not that it’s some magic fix-all approach that is already being perfectly applied.

    • LicoriceAllsort says

      The WFTDA model does consider gender identity, where skaters who identify as male are not permitted to play. My concern about this that it sets up a (admittedly uncommon but) potentially unhealthy situation where trans male skaters–who maybe want to play a “women’s” sport because they prefer the company of women or just because they like derby–keep their gender identities a secret to maintain eligibility. I had one skater propose this to me because he really wanted to join and had played women’s sports throughout high school and college. In the end, it would have been his decision (other practical matters intervened, and he didn’t end up joining), but I worried for his well-being in a situation where he’d have to remain closeted to his teammates to remain eligible to play. (Maybe that’s naive/paternalistic of me and he would have been just fine.)

      Also, because the sport defines female as “living as a woman”, I worry that it could encourage policing of what type of lifestyle is “woman” enough. This concern hasn’t been borne out, though, mostly because leagues who are willing to accept gender non-conforming skaters are, by definition, accepting of gender non-conforming lifestyles.

      It’s hard to find a perfect solution. In general, I agree that it’s a big step in the right direction, and I’m proud of my sport for choosing to explicitly state a policy of inclusivity.

  2. TBS says

    Given how difficult, mentally and physically, expensive, and irreversible reassignment is, and all the protocols in place and time it takes; I often find amusing the specter of (always a man) false flaggimg as a woman in some nefarious plot. Seems like it would be akin to, “I will rob a bank by becoming a senator!” Ouch, maybe bad example…

    • says

      There was this great Spiderman comic I read a long, long time ago, when I was a kid, where he foils this bad guy who had stolen a piece of meteorite. His motive is that he thinks the meteorite will give him superpowers with which he can steal priceless gems from the same museum. Spidey is all “Why didn’t you just steal the gems in the first place?”

      Probably the reason that no one would ever disguise themselves as women in order to win a women’s medal is that the whole point of athletics at the Olympic is pride and standing and accomplishment and stuff. There’s no MONEY in it, really. So there wouldn’t really, well, be any real motive. Why WOULD a male athlete want to win the women’s gold for shot-put or whatever? Especially since it would take a huge amount of effort and they could never take credit for the victory. The only way it would be something worth doing is if they made it so incredibly easy that the publicity of cheating itself would be worth the difficulty of doing so (like if they made as simple as just declaring yourself to identify as female).

    • northstargirl says

      Several years ago, someone who had become a prominent figure in her male-dominated area of interest came up in an online discussion. She had passed away a few years before, and thus couldn’t speak for herself. It also happened she was trans. Several layers of transphobia and stupidity ensued in the discussion, with implications she was a jerk in person (funny since male jerks are routinely excused for their behavior), or that mental illness was behind her transition, or whatever nefarious thing you want to name.

      The real prizewinner was the person who implied she did it all because she couldn’t successfully compete as a male in her field, so she went through the whole transition process in order to become the best female among the few in her field. It not only made her sound like a cheat hatching a fiendish plot (especially dumb since the stakes in this field are so low and the rewards so tiny), but it implies a “female standard” is inferior to a “male standard.”

      I stayed out of it. It made me too mad to see straight, let alone compose a response.

  3. bandm says

    I was thinking the other day about how odd it is that women and men compete separately in shooting, and looked it up. Did you know that until 1968, women didn’t compete in shooting. In 1968, some women competed against the men. Then, in 1976, a woman won 3 silver medals. By 1984, women had their own events – fewer categories and shorter distances, and, after a woman won the 1992 skeetshooting (which was still mixed-gender), a subsequent ruling by the International Shooting Union barred women from shooting against men.

    Archery also could be mixed, and is sailing separated? Surely, if Equestrian can be mixed, these have no reason for gender segregation.

    • Heather says

      Particularly amusing when you consider that when they segregated the shooting sports, they deliberately set it up so that the women’s and men’s versions do not have the same round count in order to discourage direct comparisons.

      I believe sailing is mixed, but I’m not 100% positive on that.

  4. says

    It’s my understanding that people can be unresponsive to androgen either completely or partially. So a woman who’s body produces high levels of testosterone but is partially androgen insensitive wouldn’t be gaining any advantage from the high testosterone level, but under the proposed model would be banned from competing with other women.

    Perhaps there is some way to test the resultant combination of testosterone and androgen sensitivity to create a better line? I’ve no idea if this is feasible or even possible, but just using testosterone levels seems be a problem.

  5. Rasmus says

    There are a lot of competitions which could be desegregated without any “fairness” problems. Shooting sports and chess come to mind, but also mixed 4x100m and 4x400m relays in athletics (teams with 2 women and 2 men).

    There are already several good examples of desegragation. Cross country skiing and biathlon have had mixed relays for about a decade. Riding is completely mixed AFAIK. Women riders are struggling to compete, but that has more to do with men having better access to sufficiently large economical resources to be competitive in an extremely expensive sport.

    • northstargirl says

      My husband will sometimes watch NHRA drag racing on slow afternoons, and there’s several female racers who not only compete alongside male racers but often beat them. They’re not treated as curiosities, but respected as competitors. Some of the endurance racing series also have women in them, and IndyCar is gradually catching up (the women currently in IndyCar have potential greatness but drive for small teams that don’t have competitive cars).

      Meanwhile, NASCAR is patting itself on the back for having Danica Patrick in the series (and, not incidentally, counting the increased revenue from the interest and TV ratings she generates). Supposedly this means the times are changing, but stock car racing has a long, long, long way to go.

      • Rasmus says

        Yeah. I think most if not all racing sports are mixed in principle, albeit not in practice and in culture. I rarely watch American sports on TV but I was aware that there are women in Indy car. The US is probably ahead of the rest of the world in that regard. Formula one for example is ridiculously patriarchic and old fashioned.

        • northstargirl says

          There have been a handful of female F1 drivers, but none to my knowledge in more recent years. The Marussia team did have Maria de Villota as a test driver and I was hoping that might lead to something, but given her injuries after her horrific crash last month I think her chance is over.

          F1, like NASCAR, is going to have to change an awful lot, and some philosophies will have to change, for women to have a chance at that level. I hope that will happen, because even with everything that’s wrong with F1, I do enjoy watching the races.

          • Rasmus says

            Yeah, it seems like the last time F1 was as open to women as drivers as it is today was back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The most successful driver according to Wikipedia was Lella Lombardi who started 12 races in 1974-1976 and finished 6:th in one race.

            I loved to watch F1 when I was a kid and a teenager, but I’ve gradually lost interest. The sport could have done so much more to keep up with the times in so many ways. Having cars not look like packs of cigarettes is the most progressive step they’ve taken that I’m aware of…

            I still think a pack of Marlboro looks awesome.

          • northstargirl says

            Rasmus: I know what you mean about the Marlboro colors. Much as I hate cigarettes, the name always makes me think of winning F1 teams.

            And few race cars, to me anyway, have been prettier than the blue and yellow Mild Seven Renaults.

    • Randall Shane says

      Since chess was mentioned, here’s a couple of notes on gender in chess.

      Compared to other sports/activities, chess is a bit of an oddity in that, at every level from scholastic to grandmaster, nearly all tournaments are open, with no gender restrictions, but there are women only events and championships alongside them. FIDE, the international governing body for championship chess, has International Master and Grandmaster titles with no restrictions and Woman International Master and Woman Grandmaster titles with lower requirements.

      There’s no reason why the distribution of chess talent (or any other intellectual activity) would be different for women than men — the paucity of women at high levels of competition probably has its roots in the paucity of women who play chess at any level. At least in the US, many of the chess clubs I have played in weren’t terribly accepting of women.

      GM Judit Polgar refused to play in women’s tournaments, feeling that she was as good as any of the top men (which she was — she was a fixture on the top ten players list for many years).

  6. Icaarus says

    And, this is why I couldn’t bring myself to care about the olympics this year. My Canadian blood means I cannot ignore Hockey (Three cheers for Hayley). But aside from that and Norwegian drive-by I don’t really see the point. After reading other articles written earlier this year I am finding it harder and harder to care about anything that requires gender segregation. I am also finding it harder and harder to accept the typical gender separation arguments. Most of them come down to something a lot more basic then gender.

  7. says

    Thank you for this. I’ve been wrestling with this issue since I heard about it, and I’ve been hoping that you would give your perspective.

  8. says

    I’ve argued for ages that most sports should be segregated primarily by weight/height matrices rather than by gender/sex per se. For things like American football you’d probably still want 2 leagues, because even with the height/weight matrices in place there simply aren’t very many 6’2 250 lb women out there, and that’s the average size of an NFL quarterback these days(usually the smallest players as I understand it). Most Olympic sports don’t have that problem, though.

    • DrVanNostrand says

      I like the idea of segregating based on things other than gender, though in football I think it seems quite impractical. There’s a pretty wide range of body types involved. QBs are not the smallest, and 6’2″ 250lb is very big for a QB (like Tebow). That’s more like a tight end or linebacker. The smallest players on the field are almost certainly CBs (if you exclude kickers). They’re typically around 6′ and a bit under 200lb. As for QB size, these are last year’s top 3 passers (I looked it up out of my own curiosity so I thought I might as well post it):
      Rodgers: 6’2″ 225
      Brees: 6’0″ 209
      Brady: 6’4″ 225

  9. Movius says

    Were I dictator of everything. I would make the elite competition of all sports (and all lower divisions/feeder comps/regional comps leading up to it,) open to all people regardless of gender (or other factors,) unless there was something fundamental to the sport that required otherwise (weight ranges in combat sports, etc.) This would eliminate the problem of defining gender altogether.

    Not saying segregated competitions shouldn’t exist. Just that these would not be the pinnacle.

  10. says

    This topic came up on Queereka a few weeks back, and I’m glad to see you weigh in on it with your usual finesse and careful argumentation. While a system based on endocrine profiles is not a perfect solution, it certainly beats out the current system while still recognizing that hormones do have significant effects on physiology that can’t be entirely discounted (at least in some sports).

  11. says

    Ugh, right after reading this I came across this lovely paragraph in the Independent:

    >The Olympian spirit might have been better served had the authorities been more pro-active against *gender cheats* a generation earlier. In 1936, Hitler’s Germany cheered on Dora Ratjen, a deep-voiced, broad-shouldered high jumper who refused to share the showers with other female athletes. In later life, it was reported that *’she’* had adopted a more appropriate first name: Herman. [emphasis added]

    The article is here:

    And the email I wrote to their sports desk is here:

    …but somehow I’m not surprised they haven’t gotten back to me.

    • says

      Oh for fuck’s sake… I expect intense transphobia in the Daily Mail and the Guardian and stuff, but The Independent could at least TRY to be a bit less hateful…

      And talking about it being “Hitler’s Germany”? Really? Thanks for demonstrating my point about how much the myth of “gender cheating” is tied into national distrust and bias.

      • I.Cook says

        Just out of interest, why would you expect trans*phobia from the Grauniad?

        If anything, whilst the Independent is on my very short list of papers I will even open, let alone buy, my experience is that the Guardian tends to be fairly respectful, and the least bad of all major rags.
        Though, admittedly, possessed of that quintessentially English monotony that makes me one of the few people I know who’ll read it.

  12. starskeptic says

    More physiology may need to be considered than body weight/height/mass such as heart size and lung capacity which tends to favor male athletes.

  13. Rasmus says

    Yes, or simply the ratio between muscle mass and body mass.

    It’s often said that women can’t get rid of as much fat as men. I bet the extra weight that women have to carry accounts for a significant part of the difference between women and men in most sports.

    • starskeptic says

      Men also have a greater capacity to produce sweat, higher hemoglobin levels – things that are not factored out by body mass ratios…

  14. says

    As for the reference to Futurama in the introduction, I remember that episode. I interpreted it as both a play on Bender’s well known bigoted and narcissistic angle, as well as a mockery of the gender segregation of the Olympics.

    Maybe I am too generous on the latter interpretation? I need to rewatch it to be sure.

    As was discussed in the Tosh rape-joke case a while back, pointing out how silly some things are is ok, maintaining bad attitudes in society through comedy is not. Seth MacFarlane tend to land on the wrong side of this distinction more often than not.

  15. David Hart says

    “For instance, imagine having basketball leagues broken up not by sex but by maximum or minimum height of the players.”

    It has always baffled me why basketball isn’t separated into height leagues already – given that it’s a sport that apparently offers tremendous advantages to the very tall, you’re left with a situation where only the very tall get to play it at a professtional level – or even an amateur level in some area, I assume. Not that I’m interested in watching sport generally, but if I were, I’m sure I’d watch basketball matches with equal avidness regardless of which height league it was – and if I were a basketball fan, height leagues would mean there was more high-level basketball going on for me to enjoy.

    They could even set the height of the basket differently for each league, so that the difficulty of scoring with a dramatic shot was about the same for each leauge.

  16. benjaminsa says

    Currently watching the Olympics US vs JPN soccer and it is amazing, in women matches all the officials have to be women. I guess FIFA somehow had to keep it consistent.

  17. lpetrich says

    There’s a sport that already has weight classifications: boxing. Does anyone here have any idea of how it works out in practice?

  18. Lisa says

    Realise this is quite an old post, but I thought this might be of interest. An article from a blog called science of sport, written around the time of the controversy over Semenya 2009. There are also more recent posts, including one regarding Semenya’s performance today.

    I do think where you say ‘There are many sports, such as those heavily based on stamina and endurance, where the general physiological differences between sexes even out to not being a significant factor.’ is probably incorrect in the majority of sports, shown by the marathon – an event of stamina and endurance. The current female marathon world record, held by Paula Radcliffe, is outside of the top 400 best male times ( I think that nearly all Olympic sports need to be split by gender, although perhaps how it is done is in question. It is a really tricky issue – although according to that article ‘In fact, the IAAF allow males to have sex changes and then compete as females, provided they serve a 2-year period out of the sport and undergo hormone therapy. ‘ Perhaps that is not the best solution, and how based on science that solution is I have no idea. Then again, I don’t think the decision on whether Oscar Pistorius is able to compete was/is based completely on science (in the sense of whether his legs give an advantage) – and the question is how much should be science and how much should be ethics etc. I do wonder if the IAAF are digging themselves into a hole decisions like that, but I am going completely off topic now!

  19. Kim says

    One problem they’d have with integrating every sport in the Olympics would be, they’d have half as many events and half as many medals to hand out, unless they did some extensive reformatting of everything.

    Not to say that reformatting shouldn’t be done, but I can see why the people organising it would be resistant on a practical level, not just on a philosophical one.


  1. […] the sexualisation of women, where the very gender of an athlete is challenged. In the blog post ‘Defining Gender in Sport’ Natalie Reed questions the efficiency of gender verification. She notes that “throughout the […]

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