Olympics and Gender-Testing: Helping Women or Policing Gender?

By: Dani Nispel,  Program and Policy Intern
National Council of Women’s Organizations


With all the talk about Title IX lately, it only makes sense to shift our focus to the Olympics. Friday, July 27th marks the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic games. The question on my mind is not how will women do in the games themselves, but how will they be treated?

The gender-related issues surrounding the Olympics show just how much our society is biased against female athletes. A new study by James Angelini from the University of Delaware shows that coverage of women athletes focuses on their “luck”, while male athletes are recognized for their ability. It’s awful that so many female athletes will be dismissed by the media as not really earning their accomplishments. But what about the athletes that aren’t even allowed to compete?

Media representation is one thing to worry about, but have we all forgotten about the mandatory gender screenings that took place not too long ago? The 1968 games saw the firstgender screening, required for all female athletes. These gender verification tests were meant to make sure that men were not impersonating women, and keep the playing field fair and equal. While athlete wide compulsory testing was banned in 1999, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can still require testing of a female athlete if their gender identity is “suspicious.”

A new gender-testing process has just been introduced by the IOC, but why is this an issue we should care about? A Stanford bioethicist has recently come forward to say that the new screening process, “lacks scientific credibility and could lead to discrimination against women who don’t conform to traditional notions of femininity.” The IOC’s new testing will look at natural testosterone levels to determine if an athlete can be considered “female enough” to compete. A New York Times article argues against the policy as well, saying that testosterone levels aren’t very accurate, especially for athletes. Additionally, they cite the testing policy as discriminatory: men aren’t tested, leaving the policy “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.”

After 40 year of Title IX and protecting women’s access to athletic opportunities, is there real harm from a testing policy such as this one? I think the answer is yes, but only time will tell. The distinction between male and female is not an easy line to draw, and I don’t think the International Olympic Committee really has the expertise to make that call.

The goal of these regulations is to make sure all female athletes have an equal playing field. But do higher testosterone levels simply make you a man or give you an inherent advantage?Not necessarily. Do women need protection in athletics? Not anymore than men do. We need to reassess what we’re actually protecting here: equality of competition or the level to which we want female athletes to conform? We still want our female athletes to be gentle and feminine, and anything beyond that intimidates us. A policy such as this does not aid in our ability to create an accepting atmosphere for the next generation. It still sends the message that we’re willing to police gender on completely arbitrary guidelines if individuals do not fit the feminine and masculine stereotypes. It decreases our ability to accept alternative gender identities and expressions and further perpetuates the myth that there are only two sexes: male and female.

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