By REBECCA JORDAN-YOUNG and KATRINA KARKAZIS / nytimes.com
The International Olympic Committee’s new policy governing sex verification is expected to ban women with naturally high testosterone levels, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, from women’s competitions, claiming they have an unfair advantage. I.O.C. officials portray this as a reasonable compromise in a difficult situation, arguing that the rules may be imperfect, but that sports are rule-based — and that the rules should be clear.
So what is a better solution?
First, at the very least, female athletes should be allowed to compete throughout any investigation. Suspending them from competition once questions are raised violates their confidentiality and imposes sanctions before relevant information has been gathered.
Second, when it comes to sex, sports authorities should acknowledge that while science can offer evidence, it cannot dictate what evidence we should use. Scientifically, there is no clear or objective way to draw a bright line between male and female.
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.
Yes, doping with testosterone will most likely improve your performance by increasing muscle size, strength and endurance. But you cannot predict how well athletes will do in a competition by knowing their relative testosterone levels. There is just too much variation in how bodies make and respond to testosterone — and testosterone is but one element of an athlete’s physiology.
Third, if we want a clear answer to who is eligible for women’s competitions, it is time to stop pawning this fundamentally social question off onto scientists.
Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian who is a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, favors prioritizing athletes’ rights to bodily integrity, privacy and self-identification, and promoting broad inclusiveness. “If the proclaimed human right of self-expression is to mean anything, surely it should protect the right to name one’s own gender,” he says.
We agree. At present, though, because most nations do not offer their citizens the right of self-defining gender, the best bet might be to let all legally recognized women compete. Period.
Fourth, any policies must be developed through a transparent process with broad input. A major problem with the I.O.C.’s effort to create a new policy is its opaqueness. Which types of expertise and evidence were drawn on? What issues were considered?
Finally, the I.O.C. and other sports governing bodies should denounce gender bashing among athletes, coaches, the news media and fans. Policing women’s testosterone would exacerbate one of the ugliest tendencies in women’s sports today: the name-calling and the insinuations that an athlete is “too masculine,” or worse, that she is a man. (Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia recently said that she lost at the French Open because her opponent “played like a man.” Such comments do not do female athletes any favors.)
Sex testing of female athletes will always be discriminatory. Under the new policy, men will most likely continue to enjoy freedom from scrutiny, even though they, too, have greatly varying testosterone levels, along with other variations in natural attributes that affect athletic performance.
Sex tests are based on the notion that fair competition requires “protecting” female athletes. Protection has been the cloak that covers all manner of sex discrimination, and it is seldom, if ever, the best way to advance equality.
What are these tests protecting women from? Men infiltrating women’s competitions? A century of monitoring competitions for sex fraud says no. Will superwomen crowd out other athletes? No again. Women who have been ensnared by sex-testing dragnets have often been impressive, but not out of line with other elite female athletes.
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.
Rigidly protecting the principle of sex segregation sometimes undermines female athletes, as with the recent rule that women’s marathon records cannot be set in races that include men; the rule could have eliminated Paula Radcliffe’s best time, in 2003, which beat the record by three minutes.
Sex segregation may obscure other gender inequities in sports. Men, for example, have 40 more events in the Olympics and have longer distances and durations — with no clear rationale.
Sex segregation is probably a good idea in some sports, at some levels and at some moments. But it is time to refocus policy discussions at every level so that sex segregation is one means to achieve fairness, not the ultimate goal. Ensuring gender equity through access to opportunity is just as important.
Unlike in doping cases, women with hyperandrogenism have not cheated. There is no reason to disqualify women whose bodies produce any of the complex ingredients that add up to athleticism, be they superb vision, big lungs, flexibility, long legs or testosterone.
The obsessive focus on sex has done enough harm. María José Martínez-Patiño, whose hurdling career was derailed by sex testing, said a new policy based on testosterone levels would further the “decades-long persecution of women in sports.” As she told us, “It’s enough.”
Rebecca Jordan-Young is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences.”
Katrina Karkazis is a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University and the author of “Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience.”