Saturday, March 27, 2010

Defining Athletic "Advantage": Is The IAAF Being Discriminatory Against Intersex Individuals? (A: YES.)

So, I was checking out the blog of Scott Turner Schofield, an award-winning actor (in his play, Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps!) who is transgender, who was recently featured on, an interactive community blog for people who fall outside the lines of binary gender, presentation, and performance (that I LOVE LOVE LOVE). I looked at the tag labels for his posts, and clicked on intersex. (I had to, right?) In that post was a link to a really thoughtful article I wanted to share.

Here's the article I'm referring to, from The Bilerico Project.

This article focuses on what is considered an "advantage" in athletic competition, and how discrimination against Caster Semenya is a completely arbitrary decision by the IAAF. It is not public knowledge what form of intersex Semenya possesses (and it SHOULD NOT it be!), but it IS public knowledge that, depending on what Semenya's form of intersex is, that the IAAF could ban her from competing in future competitions, including the Olympics. (Please note that I refer to Semenya as "her" and "she" because she identifies herself as female and uses these pronouns for hereself in her inteviews post-IAAF's completely inappropriate, globally-announced speculation about her biology and mandate for physical and psychological testing.) In fact, Semenya has already been banned from competing in a recent South African competition by her own country. If Semenya possesses a form of intersex that results in levels of testosterone higher than the typical ranges for biological females, then Semeya would be banned from competition because her heightened testosterone would give her an advantage over her competitors.

This is where it is easy to point out the arbitrary nature of this possible biological advantage, versus others that the IAAF does not screen for and/or discriminate against. Here's an excerpt form the article to illustrate this point:

It's odd to hear all this blather about "unfair advantage" when no political effort on earth will ever eliminate all the variables in athletic competition. That level playing field that everybody mentions is only found in the realm of theory. Sports are going to tolerate the presence of athletes who have all kinds of built-in edge -- better-than-usual eyesight, for example, or an inherited ability to tolerate lactic-acid buildup.

Additionally, the article goes on to cite how testing for the possession of "unfair advantages" (i.e., having certain intersex conditions) is overwhelmingly concentrated on competitors in womens' atheletic events, as follows in this excerpt:

Incidentally, no gender testing was ever done on male athletes. Sports authorities protest that men aren't tested because there is no need -- no issue of "unfair advantage" among male athletes.

But that isn't exactly true. Some men are born as a type of triploid, meaning they have an extra Y chromosome. XYY men tend to be taller. This could be an advantage in some sports. Not in basketball, because basketball teams select for tall to start with. But in tennis, for instance, a tall man has an edge in the serve. Tennis great Bill Tilden was very tall, which was one of the factors that made his "cannonball serve" so devastating. Some studies suggest that XYY men are also more aggressive. This could give them an edge in any sport.

Likewise, some men are born XXYs, meaning that they develop in the opposite direction -- a lighter, less-heavily-muscled frame than most men. Not every male sport is won by the sheer creaking muscular strength that most cultures equate with "masculinity!" The lighter build could give the XXY man an advantage in sports that favor that type of physique, like marathon running. The build that dominates in sprinting, which is an explosive anaerobic muscular exercise, is actually a disadvantage in the 26.2-mile marathon, where your circulatory system has to feed oxygen to as little muscle as possible, in order to maintain you in an aerobic activity for an hour or so.

But hell will freeze over before the secrets of male athletes are ever exposed by gender testing.

I think this is really thought-provoking, and sheds a lot of light on the role of biological testing for athletes. What is your take on this?

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