November 8, 2015

POOR | Arbitrating Sex and Athletics

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Teenage track star Dutee Chand has found herself at the heart of a controversy confounding athletes around the globe. On the surface, the debate contends to address unfair advantages in athletics; on deeper inspection, the arguments expose biases underlying gender categories in international competitions.

Dutee Chand trains hard and runs fast. In September, she clinched the gold medal for the 100 meter sprint at the National Open Athletics Championships in Kolkata. With medals in her relay race and the 200 meter dash as well, her reentry into competitive track and field has been triumphant. However, her comeback arises during a lull in the turbulent gender scrutiny she underwent last year that initially barred her from competing. Upon revelation of Chand’s hyperandrogenism — a naturally occurring condition that induces higher production of androgens in female-sexed bodies — she was deemed unfit (or purportedly, “too fit”) to compete with other women.

Sports arbitrators, including FIFA, the International Olympics Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), have instituted rigid policies regarding the eligibility requirements for female athletes. These regulations customarily exclude hyperandrogenic women from competing with women whose testosterone levels fall under the threshold of a standardized norm, in a dubious effort to eliminate biological “advantages.”

Under the codes of IAAF, disqualified intersex athletes can reenter competition if they undergo body-altering medical interventions (surgery to reduce testosterone production or a regime of hormone-suppressing drugs). Today’s biomedical policing of intersex athletes burgeons from a dark genealogy of gender verification exams that pathologized nonbinary bodies. For most of the 20th century, all female athletes in international contests underwent testing to prove the “appropriate” hormones and chromosomes that would allow them to compete.

Unlike their peers, male athletes have not been subject to such panoptic inspection. Contrary to the unfair advantage that high levels of testosterone supposedly imparts on women, too much “femininity” in male athletes is perceived to be a handicap and thus, irrelevant to arbitration of advantages. This assumption fails to critique the possibility that the conflation of women and weakness is a self-fulfilling prophecy imbedded in cultural expectations of passivity and lack of funds and opportunities for female athletes — rather than a biologically determined fact. Katrina Karkazis of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics argues, “there is no [scientific] evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones.”

IAAF’s testosterone policy hinges on this inkling of an impervious boundary between the male and female sex, which, as scientists, feminists and anthropologists have pointed out, is a socially fabricated bifurcation. The imposition of two diametric boxes for sex identity obscures the range of variation in human anatomy; we can be male or female, and nothing in between, outside, oscillating or otherwise. Karkazis asserts that “scientifically, there is no clear or objective way to draw a bright line between male and female,” because testosterone levels vary widely, depending on a range of non-generalizable factors.

Culture and science do not exist in parallel vacuums, but rather mutually influence one another, particularly in demarcating “natural” and “normal.” The “objective” processes of scientific research are laden with cultural biases that have led to the pathologization of bodies that “deviate” from normative standards. Today, intersex babies often undergo “corrective” surgery moments after birth (frequently without their parents’ knowledge or consent) to placate a social discomfort with nonbinary persons. These “corrective” interventions are cosmetic measures that aim to situate people more neatly into categories and often result in psychological damage for the individual. Cultural queasiness with intersexuality and the “corrective” surgeries work in a positive feedback loop, exacerbating medical surveillance and intolerance of intersex individuals.

Scores of athletes have been stripped of medals and disqualified because of variances that inevitably exist in the infinitely diverging array of female anatomy. Yet, IAAF avows that a fundamental limit of testosterone divulges the distillable essence of “woman” — a measure that confines the admissibility for participation in female athletics. In codifying the corporeal limitations of “woman,” IAAF policies reaffirm perilously narrow-minded conceptions of sex and gender. The scrutiny and marginalization of intersex athletes becomes standardized through the ensnaring, co-constitutive effects of sexist stereotypes and gender binaries.

Furthermore, this highly regulated and essentialized femininity is rooted in centuries of white supremacy. Dissected and molded by the white male gaze, the archetypal female is a racialized concept, stemming from the desire for a docile, submissive, diminutive and reproductive homemaker to serve the active, willful, colonial male. The standardized boundaries of “woman” (physically, psychologically and socially) develop from a racist patriarchal organization of control that leaves little room for deviance from the idealized, compliant, white female.

Women who do not conform to racialized gender stereotypes often fall under suspicion. The hyper-monitoring of racialized women in arbitrations of gender testing in sports typifies this vestige of colonial racism; most women whose gender has been called into question by athletic adjudicators have been women of color and/or women from the Global South. These women face increased body policing, medicalization, and exclusion from opportunities when failing to comply. Courts disproportionately negate the agency of female athletes of color to self-identify, thereby propagating racism within athletic arenas and gender constructions.

Nonetheless, last summer Dutee Chand won a lawsuit that temporarily overturns IAAF’s testosterone policy. The Court of Arbitration for Sport decided that Chand has the right to compete with her natural body, based on the absence of scientific proof demonstrating that testosterone enhances athletic abilities. Within track and field competitions, the hyperandrogenism exclusion has been lifted for two years, during which the IAAF must evidence their claim or give it up.

Common estimates indicate that one in 2000 people are intersex, meaning that the delineations of binary boxes fall short for millions across the globe. To institutionalize an incompetent binary system within international athletics is to disregard, reject, erase, disparage and deny the existence and the exigencies of millions of athletes — past, present and future. The inadequacy and destructiveness of these categorizing schemes becomes evident in the exclusion of passionate athletes like Dutee Chand who deserve the opportunity to compete without forcibly transforming their bodies.

We are all affected by the reinforcement of gender binaries that stem from racist and misogynist ideologies and serve to squash us into restraining categories of preconfigured identities. Testosterone testing helps no one — least of all the intersex athletes whose dreams are sidelined, careers are cut short and identities are refuted through the imposition of capricious borderlines. Dutee Chand’s victory is a leap towards undoing the damaging confines of gender testing in sports, but much work remains to bring justice to the multiplicity of sex and gender identities. We all have a stake — let’s start pushing.

Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ksp57@cornell.edu. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.

One thought on “POOR | Arbitrating Sex and Athletics

  1. Beautiful address of an issue that has marred women in sports! This is especially pressing as a racial profiling and bias facilitator of WOC — super glad to see that addressed in here. This stigmatism, even without formal statute, exists everywhere in sports. Just look at the criticism of Serena Williams! Great piece <3

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