Gender in Sport, Redux

Canada WWCI’ve seen several spot-on, anti-FIFA commentaries in recent weeks, but this one has nothing to do with corruption.

Rather than focus on the scandal that has rocked FIFA, Kate Fagan’s espnW piece took soccer’s governing body to task over “gender verification” testing: Specifically, the screening tests used to determine the level of testosterone in female athletes.  The International Olympic Committee has similar rules in place.

Fagan’s major issue with the policy is that women, but not men, face certain consequences of such regulations.  Although men are tested, so long as they can show abnormalities are natural (and not the result of, say, performance-enhancing drug usage), they are permitted to compete.  On the other hand, athletes competing in women’s sports may be banned, even if—and usually when—they are shown to have abnormal levels of testosterone that result from natural physiology.

There are two issues in play, both of which require mental gymnastics to reach the author’s stated conclusions.

The first is the one summarized in this quote about FIFA’s policy:

Think about the subliminal message here: Being a woman — or even like a woman — is essentially a disadvantage. And being “like a man” is supposedly so advantageous that FIFA has created a policy to expose any female athlete deemed “too manly.”

If Fagan thinks this message is subliminal, I’ll state it plainly: Yes, being a man is wildly advantageous in most sports.  Men are faster, bigger, and stronger than women.  The average man has about 50% more lower-body strength than the average woman, and about double the upper-body strength of the average woman.

This difference is so pronounced that—brace yourselves—we separate the sexes in nearly every athletic endeavor.

The experiences of men and women in athletics can be markedly dissimilar, which is one of the reasons why espnW exists in the first place.  The “W” stands for “women,” after all.

Fagan quotes the head of performance for the Bolton Wanderers (a high-level English pro soccer club, for those unfamiliar) who says that the men don’t undergo these types of tests.  She presents this fact as if it’s damning evidence to support a thesis of unfairness.

But the reason FIFA and the IOC engage in this kind of testing for women, and not men, is that someone with “male” characteristics has an unmistakable competitive advantage when competing against women.  Again, this is why there’s, e.g., a Women’s World Cup—and not just one World Cup—in the first place.

Fagan knows this, of course, but it seems that even recognizing that obvious fact runs counter to the currently prevailing orthodoxy within certain media circles.

We then get to the second issue, which is the true heart of the matter.  As Fagan says:

But the real problem here is that you can’t definitively test for sex. This is why professional medical organizations attacked these policies so forcefully decades ago, and why the IOC stopped calling it “sex testing.”

Sex is not binary; it’s on a continuum. And trying to pinpoint exactly where on the spectrum someone stops being “a woman” and starts being “a man” is an imprecise science.

Emphasis mine.  Repeatedly, those who decry this kind of rule (Dave Zirin, and several other prominent voices on the Left) do so with the notion that testing can’t even possibly determine what sex someone is.  It’s an unknowable!

It’s fair to debate whether testosterone is the best marker to test.  It seems reasonable to me, but I’m also (surprise!) not a biochemist.  Fagan also has issues with that element, and, were that her only point, this would be a very different piece.  But make no mistake: There is no test for “male” characteristics in female athletes that would be satisfactory to critics of these policies.

Gender and sex, you see, can’t be sussed out from blood work.  Rather, these qualities are determined by how someone self-identifies and lives life.  Put simply, no organization—not the IOC, not FIFA—can tell a person what sex or gender that person is.  Only the individual can do that.

Yet, if we’re still going to have women and men compete separately, then how do we figure out who plays where?  Fagan has a solution to that, as presented in an earlier article, this one on the IOC:

The solution here seems pretty simple: Let all legally recognized women compete without persecution. Right now, the IOC seems to be regulating something — a perceived advantage for some female athletes — that doesn’t actually exist.

Emphasis mine again.  The trouble with this “simple” solution is that “legal recognition” of sex is an increasingly tricky subject, especially in these days when the rules of who is male and who is female (and what may be said about who is male and who is female) seem to change by the week.

Many of the same folks who think testosterone tests are barbaric would also subscribe to the theory that anyone who sincerely identifies as a member of a given sex is, in fact, a member of that sex, irrespective of body chemistry or anatomy.  The trouble with that position when applied in a sports context should be apparent.

Trangenderism is obviously a sensitive and delicate subject.  Yet, I would hope that most people would agree that, if we accept the premise that men have a natural advantage over women in most athletic endeavors, then determining who is a “man” for the purposes of athletic competition is fair game, not an exercise in bigotry.

I say only that “I hope” because I genuinely believe that even asking such questions in 2015 would draw serious, perhaps punitive ire from certain corners.  Despite a rich history of complications of gender in sport, including examples like Andreas Krieger and Stella Walsh, even raising the issue is seen as “regressive.”

Whether we like it or not, though, that battle continues.  Just recently, female UFC superstar Ronda Rousey and promotion president Dana White received sharp criticism for saying that transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox has an unfair advantage.  Naturally, the Advocate dismissed this kind of talk as borne of ignorance.

Fox did not undergo gender-reassignment surgery until age 30, having lived (and previously gone through puberty) as a man up to that point.  Fox now fights against women, dominating most of the time.  Even the powerful, frequently-discussed societal more against men physically harming women bows to the idea that we must treat transgender women as “women, period” in every context.

Fagan, for her part, doesn’t understand why testosterone level—or, more broadly, “male-ness”—should be considered any differently than other innate characteristics.  She quotes a strawman argument in her FIFA piece that she had previously laid out in her IOC commentary:

Every elite athlete (actually, every human, for that matter) is born with certain genetic variations that either aid or hinder his or her potential for success on the playing field. An incomplete list: arm length, leg length, toe length, foot size, lung capacity. Each one of these characteristics, depending on the sport, could be the difference between first place and also-ran. For example, take Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt. Why aren’t we outraged at his ridiculously long legs, which allow him to gobble up the track faster than his competitors?

Emphasis mine.  Yes, there are many physical characteristics that are variables that affect performance.  However, only some of those are criteria by which we separate people in sport.  Sex is one of those.  So is weight.  So is age.

There is no sport which divides people based on toe length or femur size, per se.  No woman would be driven from her sport based on lung capacity.

Testosterone, on the other hand, is a characteristic that is directly linked with sex.  Again, we can debate whether there is a truer criteria that may be used, but that’s not really the argument.  The argument is whether we should try to determine sex and gender in sport at all.

Either dividing sport based on sex is valid or it isn’t.  If it is (and I absolutely believe it is), then it’s reasonable to have some kind of standard in place for keeping those who have the physical gifts derived from male body chemistry from potentially dominating women’s sports.

I’ll give the last word to Renee Richards, the transgender tennis pro who was born Richard Raskind.  Richards, who fought a lengthy legal battle to be able to play on the women’s pro tennis tour, later reflected—and reconsidered—the natural advantages she had in growing up as a male.  From a recent Slate article:

If I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.

While the issue of transgender athletes and intersex or high-T female athletes aren’t precisely identical, the question of the natural advantages of those who grew up male (or who have male characteristics) overlaps.

I’m left to wonder if common sense will again be forced to stand aside in favor of the diktats that emanate from elite sensibilities.


Note: A substantially identical version of this piece originally published on Ricochet a few days ago.
This entry was posted in Commentary, General Culture and News, Science, Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Gender in Sport, Redux

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | The Axis of Ego

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