What happened to the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) promise to make sport a better place for female athletes?
When Jacques Rogge was president of that organization from 2001 to 2013, he made female participation in sport his pet project. Gender equity was supposed to be his legacy.
But near the end of his term, his narrow vision came into focus: What he really meant by gender equity was having at least one female athlete from every participating country compete in the Games.
Sure, numbers are important, but so are the underlying issues that structure female involvement in sport: inequitable/non-existent funding for teams and athletes, lack of media coverage, lack of qualified coaches, fewer institutionalized opportunities to play and compete, and media coverage that focuses more on her looks than her athletic ability. These are just a few examples.
Another one is sex-testing, which is done only to female athletes. That's not the terminology the IOC uses, but most people refer to it as such because that's what it is, testing for biological sex.
The IOC has informally encouraged sex-testing since the 1936 Olympics, and formally since the 1968 Games. At first there was the visual exam, where female athletes had their genitals inspected by "qualified" experts to ensure they were all indeed female.
Then came chromosome testing, followed by DNA examinations. Each time, researchers and advocates appealed to the IOC to stop the madness, explaining that sex could not be pinned down to one single variable: not to genitalia, not to chromosomes, not to DNA.
The IOC rejected this scientific truth, grasping somewhat impulsively to other areas of science to help justify its discriminatory practice. It has recently latched on to testosterone as if it was the Holy Grail To Womanhood. The IOC claims that some competitors are not really female because their testosterone levels are too high, and do not fall within the IOC's prescribed range for how much testosterone females should have.
Women who do not fit their policy can either undergo medical intervention to force their biology into that shoebox, or quit. Several young healthy women underwent a series of invasive procedures, including clitoral amputation, to remain in competitive sport.
We need to let that sink in for a minute.
Researchers and advocates jumped back into action, explaining to Olympic officials that testosterone is not a marker of sex. The IOC forged on, saying all this testosterone gives these females an unfair advantage over other females whose testosterone levels aren't as high.
While some forms of testosterone can enhance performance, there is no clear evidence that proves testosterone is the most important factor. It's merely one element in a highly complex interdependent system, meaning chalking it up to a single variable and generalizing it to the whole population just doesn't add up scientifically.
There are also thousands of other substances on the World Anti-Doping Association's (WADA) banned list that hardly ever generate the attention testosterone does. It is perceived differently: testosterone has become the signifier for sporting excellence. Fear mongers run amok with this belief, claiming "fairness" in sport needs to be preserved at all costs -- sex-test those girls! -- as if a marketing brand should trump human rights.
There are dire consequences of submitting to the policy. We all need testosterone to be healthy. This is true for all bodies, young and growing, maturing, struggling through menopause, or people who have transitioned from a male to a female sex (and who are immediately propelled into menopause from having their testes removed). And because every body is different, every body responds differently to hormone therapy. The concoction that helps one person regain and maintain their health is not the same for the next. It's not a matter of fairness or performance. It's a matter of health equity.
The IOC's latest policy on sex-testing, approved in January of this year, has two branches and each focus on testosterone: one deals with hyperandrogenism (naturally occurring high levels of testosterone in females) and the other deals with transitioned athletes as a whole (who must undergo hormone replacement therapy to regulate basic health).
Even then, transitioned men cop a very mere mention: "Those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction," while transitioned females must meet the IOC's specified criteria or have their hormones suppressed to ensure her testosterone levels remain below the prescribed level "throughout the period of desired eligibility."
While these two branches and issues are intertwined, they continue to be discussed as separate items, and most of what we hear about in the news lately concerns the hyperandrogenism rule. It is the good news story in this sordid mess: the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the legal body governing world sport, ruled in 2015 that there was not enough medical evidence to justify the hyperandrogenism rule and therefore suspended it until further notice. Adherents have since been frantically trying to convince the world of the need for such lunacy.
So the struggle continues. Female athletes who fall under these two rules face an uphill battle, as they are less likely to be seen as "real" females by broader society, even though teams of medical specialists from general practitioners to surgeons to endocrinologists have determined these women to be female. The Olympic Family has a long way to go in terms of understanding the horrors they've caused. And so does society. What happens to one woman should be a concern to us all.
Was this the kind of legacy former president Rogge had in mind when he left his post in 2013? I doubt it. The real legacy of his era is the ongoing sex-testing of females in sport. Under the present leadership of president Thomas Bach, things have gotten worse at the IOC, with more invasive measures being used to align female biology with the IOC's dictates. It's institutionalized sexism and a human rights problem. It's the IOC's violence against women.
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