From the IAAF to the IOC: another (not so) fine mess

// 16 February 2010

IOC logo (public domain image via Wikipedia)After last year’s furore about the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) appalling treatment of Caster Semenya and the ensuing “agreement” (as reported in the New York Times), the casual observer might have thought that the matter of so-called “gender testing” in athletics had been settled.

However, last month it was reported in The Guardian that:

[…] the 19-year-old athlete would be allowed to race only once the IAAF had cleared her. “We can only allow her to participate in events once we get clarity from the IAAF, not at this stage,” [Ray Mali of Athletics South Africa (ASA)] told Reuters.

So apparently the IAAF has still not reached a decision.

And, while the IAAF prevaricates, it seems to have handed the baton of crass insensitivity over to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). According to BBC News:

In January a symposium of experts in Miami concluded that some athletes discovered to have gender ambiguities be advised to have treatment, possibly even surgery, to continue competing at international level.


The IOC’s Medical Commission will not say what criteria they use to define female gender, so what exactly do they consider an ambiguity?

Just… what? Is this “symposium of experts” really going to “advise” intersex athletes to have surgery before they’ll be allowed to compete? What if there’s no proven medical need for it? What if those athletes refuse? My reading of it is that the IOC is saying that simply being born different – in one of the myriad ways that humans are born different – is enough to justify surgery. The Organisation Intersex International (OII), one of the largest international intersex organisations, in its Declaration of Fundamental Principles has denounced enforced surgery carried out on intersex people as “totalitarian, sexist oppression” and I, for one, am frankly dismayed that the IOC seems oblivious to these concerns. I find it hard to understand how this proposal is about anything other than an attempt to enforce normalisation on female athletes whom the IOC perceives as having undefined “gender ambiguities”.

More from the BBC News report:

Last week the International Olympic Committee’s General Assembly was briefed by the head of its Medical Commission Professor Arne Ljungqvist who recommended that “strategically located centres of excellence should be established to which athletes with a DSD (disorders of sex development) could be referred and, if necessary, further investigated and treated.”

The OII has been campaigning against the use of the term “disorders of sex development” since at least 2006. There is a comprehensive list of reasons why the OII objects to the term here: yet again, the IOC seems to be ignoring the wishes of intersex people.

But I wonder if there’s even more to this than so-called concerns about the health of a comparatively few female athletes with a “disorder of sex development”. Is the IOC simply using the Caster Semenya case as a pretext for launching its own attack on any and all women athletes who don’t conform to stereotypical female gender norms?

As Patricia Nell Warren writes in her perceptive analysis IOC and gender inquisition:

So the whole male arena of sport – and the egos and careers of male athletes – have, so far, been rigorously protected from gender scrutiny. In my opinion, this scrutiny should now happen. It’s only fair that the torture instruments of cultural discomfort about gender appearance be applied to men as well. And I’ll bet that, if enough male competitors – and the nations sending them out there – were to find themselves being figuratively “burned at the stake,” and the gold-medal prospects of a few outstanding male athletes destroyed, the way Semenya’s might have been, the outcry would be such that the IOC will hastily backtrack.

There’s an old saying that, when you find yourself in a hole, first thing you should do is stop digging. It’s advice the IOC should perhaps consider following. Then, maybe, it can think about how it’s going to get itself out of this not so fine mess. If it wasn’t for the fact that the implications of what it’s saying are so jaw-droppingly outrageous and fundamentally sexist, watching it struggle might otherwise have made quite an entertaining spectator sport.


IOC logo: A public domain image sourced via Wikipedia

Comments From You

Laurel Dearing // Posted 17 February 2010 at 9:51 am

surgery like what? breast? vulvar? changes in the muscle? face reconstruction? cant imagine any of that would go a way towards helping win races. athletes get more “masculine” figures, it hurts to have things bouncing around when you run. what about female body builders? they need all the mass they can have, should they keep long hair nails and makeup just to keep other people satisfied? i mean, we are using the term intersex here, but considering that they “will not say what criteria they use to define female gender” who knows if you even need to be intersex to confuse these guys? just not what they have come to expect of females including athletes. its weird. its wrong. if not then perhaps theyd like to create a third category for olympic sports for intersex, trans, and people thy just cant identif themselves, or one for everybody with guys winning 99% of the time (perhaps worth it for the time that doesnt happen? lol)

Helen G // Posted 17 February 2010 at 10:18 am

surgery like what?

The focus in the Caster Semenya case was very much on her genitalia.

perhaps theyd like to create a third category for olympic sports

I’m not sure if that would clarify the questions around enforced surgery and the undefined term “gender ambiguity”.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 17 February 2010 at 10:33 am

it wasnt really a serious suggestion, but if they arent going to let women, or gender ambiguous women perform in either the womens or the mens then they should have another solution.

‘surgery like what?’ because they “will not say what criteria they use to define female gender” so perhaps it doesnt stop there?

earwicga // Posted 17 February 2010 at 10:38 am

This is seriously fucked up! Caster Semenya is the latest in a series of victims of the IAAC, and it absolutely stinks. Barbaric.

gadgetgal // Posted 17 February 2010 at 11:18 am

I’d like to get to a point where gender isn’t the determining factor in taking part in a sport. Although it’s true in most cases at the moment that the best female athlete will generally not be able to beat the best male athlete (I’m thinking specifically athletics, here, there are a lot of sports where gender really makes no difference at all) it’s also true that the best female athlete will still usually be able to beat the worst male athlete. Whether they would put this down to genetics, upbringing, training (which I think plays a greater part than most people think, the lack of investment in female sports teams highlights this, and also the lack of training facilities available to them), it would still seem to me to be a thing to try and work towards. Same as the boardroom – the best person should be hired, regardless of gender.

I remember in the school I went to in the states there was a girl on the football team (American football, or “handball” as I prefer to call it). She had a lot more to prove, and she had to be better than every single guy out there just to get on the team. But she was on the team! We would have won less matches if she hadn’t been there! I thought the rule at age 12 that separated boys from girls in softball wasn’t fair – my sister was a demon softball player as a kid, and she should have had the opportunity to go out for the baseball team with all her other team mates. I reckon it’s more the lack of opportunities that make the difference in men’s and women’s sports, not something inbuilt!

A J // Posted 17 February 2010 at 4:59 pm

As long as we enforce gender segregation in sport, these problems are going to arise.

I don’t see any more reason why women (or intersex competitors) should be prevented from competing equally against men, than there would be for running a separate ‘black’ race and ‘white’ race in the 100m sprint. It’s all a hangover from Victorian attitudes, when the idea of women and men competing together would have been abhorent. But surely we’ve moved on? We need to stop treating women as an inferior class of humanity within sport.

Let all athletes compete equally together, and may the best human being win!

Helen G // Posted 17 February 2010 at 5:06 pm

women (or intersex competitors)

Some women may be intersex, just as some intersex people are women.

But yes, apart from that :) it’s an interesting idea.

Michelle // Posted 18 February 2010 at 7:41 am

As an intersexed person, I can maybe see an argument framed on the basis of female-identified individuals who produce testosterone past a certain limit. Its effects on one’s ability to build muscle could feasibly give someone an edge over more normative females. But genitals? Really? Who cares what athletes have under their pants if they are starting from the same potential level of performance!

Helen G // Posted 18 February 2010 at 9:36 am

Agreed – although I have a huge problem with the idea of anyone – be they medical “experts”, sporting authorities or whoever – setting limits on what’s acceptable and what’s not, particularly when they don’t even seem able or willing to define those limits.

It seems to me that both the IAAF and the IOC are in danger of making the old, familiar mistake of picking a single binary trait which is then used to categorise these undefined “gender ambiguities”. It’s never worked historically and, on the evidence of this, it’s hard to envisage it working now. Most people labelled female are so called because they have labia minora and majora, a clitoris, etc – but the definition isn’t taken to mean “what’s average”, it’s used prescriptively (“what’s ideal”), with the result that the IOC seems to be proposing medical treatment in an attempt to make what it considers “acceptable-looking” women out of “unacceptable-looking” women. It completely fails to take account of the needs of anyone who happens to find this mysterious “gender ambiguous” category being imposed on them.

As a friend of mine remarked, a focus on genitalia as the defining quality hasn’t done her any favours: although she’s chromosomally atypical (47,XXY), her genital topography meant she was assigned male at birth, whereas her gender identity was (is) female. She’s now transitioned; she’s a woman who is transsexual and intersex. I shudder to think what the IOC would want to do to her in pursuit of its goal of normalising “gender ambiguous” people…

JoanofArk // Posted 18 February 2010 at 11:32 am

Just when you think society has grown up something like this comes about. I don’t see why it should be anyone’s business if someone is male or female, truly I think that no one is 100% anything. I think this is a new way for politically minded people to inforce their beliefs on society.

Kristin // Posted 18 February 2010 at 12:04 pm

Sorry this sounds vague, but months ago I was watching some telly programme about Berlin in the 1930’s and there was a bit about this ‘sex’ doctor who believed there were literally hundreds of different genders and that ‘male’ and ‘female’ as defined (or not in the case of IOC!) were extremely limiting. I wonder why this has not been taken up more? Or has it and I’m just ignorant of that? Obviously such beliefs would have been quashed in 1930’s Berlin with the Nazis on the rise. I thought that sex doctor deserved a programme all to himself!

Helen G // Posted 18 February 2010 at 12:25 pm

Possibly Magnus Hirschfeld? For all his faults, he did carry out some pioneering work…

And fair comment about people who identify outside the usual binary genders (eg, genderqueer, intergender, neutrois, bigender, androgyne, etc) – it seems as though they, too, would be potential targets for the IOC’s normalisation programme.

Kristin // Posted 18 February 2010 at 1:30 pm

Yes, that’s the fella! Thanks for the link, Helen.

btw, I would like to see more F-word articles/features from you, if possible. You have saved me from a lot of ignorance and got me thinking about things I never thought about before.

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