The Running Gender Mystery

Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.

Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.

One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.

This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.

Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.

Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course,  the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, males have a general physical advantage over females and for sports to be fair, males should be distinguished from females. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.

One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports.  Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.

Because sorting is and will remain gender based, it seems most reasonable to allow a person with the syndrome to compete as the gender they have chosen (or been assigned). It is not a perfect solution, but seems to be the fairest approach. Naturally, the person would have to be “established” in the gender rather than simply deciding to be, for example, a woman for the purposes of competition after having lived as a male.

Of course, some “normal” women have naturally high levels of testosterone. This can presumably provide some women with an advantage over other women, but this would not be cheating. After all, some people are born with better lung capacity or more efficient muscles and this is not cheating.

It must be said, of course, that a person might also have unusual high levels of testosterone due to the use of synthetic testosterone as a steroid to increase athletic performance. If this is the case, then the ethics of the situation are quite clear-such cheating is morally unacceptable in sports.

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  1. “cheating” in sports is not that clear an issue to me. Have a watch of the documentary “Bigger, Faster Stronger”, which talks about “cheating” and steroid use. It also highlights the dangers of steroids versus “health supplements”, which are less strictly regulated than steroids.

    A good quote by Barry Bonds: “We just need to go out there and do our jobs, just as you professionals do your jobs. No… All you guys lied. All of y’all. In a story or whatever, have lied. Should you have asterisks behind your name? All of you have lied! All of you have said something wrong, all of you have dirt. All of you. When your closet’s clean, then come clean somebody else’s. But clean yours first.”

  2. I agree with Starmonkey in terms of the exact point at which cheating becomes cheating. If athletes train at high altitudes to improve their oxygen intake, for instance, I’m not entirely sure how that is qualitatively different from taking drugs for the same effect.

    An objection could be that the first result is through physical hard work, not artificial means. This physical effort is an integral part of competitive sports.

    True, but then the oxygen-poor altitude could be seen as a ‘natural’ drug in the sense of an external agency altering performance (and access to such an environment may be as limited/expensive as performance-enhancing drugs so have the same bias towards certain athletes/teams/countries in this way) – some artificial drugs may only boost an athlete’s chances and they may still require intense training, so how is this different?

    Similarly various sportswear are developed to reduce wind resistance etc – this is both not the result of physical effort and definitely is an artificial aid. Why should the fact that it is external make it acceptable over drugs?

    A counter-objection, I guess, would be that the high altitude training is solely an aid for training, the results of which are shown in the event itself. This is distinct from performance-enhancing drugs which are generally in the system to enhance performance for the event itself. However there are, I assume, drugs that could be used as an aid to training and reap benefits even if not in the system for the actual event, which leaves the same questions over allowed and banned forms of performance-enhancement.

  3. Also an addendum to my last point: it would still also leave the issue of special clothing to enhance speed, for instance, which definitely are used during the events themselves. May the Ancient Greek nude-athlete model was ahead of its time!

  4. I’m pretty happy to have been born *after* the time when naked greek men were competing in the 100m sprints :)

  5. The Greek games wouldnt have picked out manly women, for as I understood it, it was an all male preserve apart from the odd female priestess spectator. It was a time when the warring states suspended hostilities to participate in the games. Global suspension of all warfare to participate in athletic pursuits what an ideal!

  6. Is it fair that some people are born more talented than others? Is it fair that a man who was born stronger competes against someone who has to work out and lift weights everyday? Is it fair that almost only tall people play basketball? Yes and no to all those questions, but that is just the way life is. Some people are born with it, some without it, and that it can be any talent or physical trait. People are different, that is part of being human, isn’t it?

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  8. I think chromosomes are the simplest way to categorise someone, with the presence of a male Y chrosmosome being the deciding factor in whether someone is male or not. There are conditions whereby some men have YYX chromosomes (they often turn out to be criminals!). Would they be discriminated against in the men only competitions? I think genotype not phenotype should be the deciding factor or we could be arguing for ever.

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