Policing body diversity

By Bárbara Pires

The politics and production of sex and gender in sport: a look into hyperandrogenism on the eve of the Rio Olympics 2016


Ever since women began to officially participate in the Olympic competitions over the twentieth century, methods of investigation, regulation, and control of the feminine body also began to be implemented and developed. From a clearly sexist basis beginning in 1900, when the place of women in sport was in question, the committees and sporting federations slowly began to argue in favor of a method of protection the women’s category. Even today, this protection presupposes that regulations, and proceedings are done to guarantee the eligibility of athletes in competitions through a distinct sexual basis.

Throughout the years, along with other changes in different aspects of social lives, sporting regulations have become more medicalized, systemized, and standardized. As such, from a context where athletes had to carry a “certificate of femininity” in order to prove their sex to the formalization of these processes of certification beginning with the introduction of the Soviet Union to the Games, the politics of verifying gender in sport has evolved using more scientific methods. In 1966, the first test to visually determine femininity in athletes occurred. Doctors examined genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics of athletes. This form of investigation became known as the “nude” or “naked parade”. In 1967, the Comitê Olímpico Internacional (COI) implemented another parallel form of investigation: the chromosome test.

This test is done by counting the amount of Barr bodies through a sample of mucous and not through a genetic analysis using the blood, the method now commonly used. In the middle of the 1980s, a Spanish athlete named María José Martínez Patiño had a negative result through the test, which resulted in her sporting ban and the removal of her medals. She fought for three years in order to revert her disqualification, which happened when it was proven that even with the sex chromosome 46, XY, her body did not respond to any androgenic hormone – a cellular variation that medical literature now call the “Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome”. The Barr test failed, and so, a form of chromosome analysis that allowed genetic variations such as that of María to escape.

The committees and sporting federations abandoned this form of testing after much criticism, not because of the regulations and the testing outright, but the efficacy of this form of procedure. In 1992, the COI still tried to introduce a genetic test that identifies the “SRY” gene, usually  found in the Y sex chromosome. This gene participates in the sexual determination of the human body, and, through the logic of the committee, its presence could be used as a more effective marker for an athlete’s sex/gender. In the article “Testing sex and gender in sports”, the historian Vanessa Heggie (2010) describes how, in 1996, eight women “failed” the test, but they must be cases of “false positives” since all eight were fit to compete in the Olympic Games in Atlanta that year after going through various other examinations.

That year, through this test and for those Olympic Games, the Brazilian ex-judoka Edinanci Silva had her life put under scrutiny not only by the COI but also through the media, who, after learning about the proceedings in verifying her gender, began an invasive and humiliating uncovering of her life. Edinanci returned to compete, even in Atlanta, participated in another three Olympics, and won gold in the mid-weight category in the Pan-American Games in 2007, in Rio de Janeiro. She overcame the violation of her body and the spectacularization of her life through her dedication to her sport.

In 1999, the COI, through a recommendation given by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), removed the chromosome and genetic testing requirement in the regulation for sporting eligibility. Even so, there continues to be cases in which these institutions investigate and verify the sex/gender of certain athletes. In 2009, the South African runner Caster Semenya went through one of these tests and was banned for a year from competing internationally, until IAAF allowed her to play once again. In 2010, after liberating her to return to competitions, she wrote in a publication for The Guardian that she was “subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of [her] being”.

In 2011 and 2012, respectively, the IAAF and the COI announced a new resolution to regulate the eligibility of athletes, known as “hyperandrogenism”, in which they investigate the concentration of the natural androgen hormone (this is not the synthetic androgen doping commonly investigated in antidoping control) in athlete’s blood. The principal androgen hormone analyzed is testosterone. Women with a count higher than 10 nanomole [nmol] of testosterone per liter [L] of blood are within the “masculine hormone limit” stipulated by the medical counsel in these institutions. Through this logic of “the reign of hormones” (well described by the anthropologist Fabíola Rohden [2008] over the way sexual difference is constructed), athletes identifying as female with high concentration of natural testosterone in their bodies must be investigated and regulated because they have an unequal advantage in relation to the other female athletes without this hormone concentration in their bodies. Two exceptions are made: if a female athlete are resistant to the effects of testosterone, as in the case of María Patiño, or if the female athlete reduces her levels of the hormone. This reduction presupposes some surgical procedures to remove, for example, the atrophied gonads or undescended testicles, as well as testosterone blocking medication.

In 2013, a publication by French doctors in different specialities in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism described the diagnostics and care of four athletes between 18 and 21 years old coming from “rural or mountainous regions in developing countries” created an avalanche of concern over this resolution and its proceedings, precisely because their actions are not circumscribed to the care of the “conditions” of the athletes. The four athletes, that possess the variation of the enzyme “5-alpha reductase” [SDRD5A2], went under a “gonadectomy” to remove atrophied and undescended testicles although “masculine gonades in patients with SDRD5A2 do not present health risks”. The health professionals also conducted a “partial clitoridectomy” following a “feminizing vaginoplasty” and a therapy to replace the estrogen in the four athletes. A year later after these proceedings, the “sporting authorities” permitted that all of the athletes could return to compete.

These cases provide evidence that the tangled concerns within the politics of gender verification do not simply end with securing the women’s category or the administration of sporting eligibility. These politics and resolutions constantly evoke a form of regulating bodies. A body that needs to be managed, oriented, and investigated in order to participate in the sporting and media world. These notions of corporeality are, therefore, intrinsically linked with hegemonic (and not scientific) cultural ideas that are placed upon the female body.

At first glance, it can seem paradoxical that intersexuality here can be considered a “benefit”, strengthening the sporting performance of an athlete, while the routine biomedical practice in these cases has been, throughout history, the correction of “sexual abnormalities”. But, perhaps it is exactly this attribution of “benefit” in these cases that makes clear that these investigations and political, ethical, and sporting proceedings are done with a basis in sociocultural norms. The choices of these subjects who are checked within these regulations possibly cross the same culturally intelligible bases as those of intersex youth who have their lives and bodies under scrutiny since the moment they are born. The motive, in both cases, is the socio cultural discomfort with the anatomies divergent from supposedly logical pattern of sexual development. Further, whether through the ambiguity of sexual designation of intersex children or the supposed “natural doping” of intersex athletes, the motivations and corrective strategies have a common foundation.

This interpretation becomes even clearer in light of other natural anatomic variations that can guarantee a more efficient sporting performance and are neither investigated nor corrected, such as the excessive secretion of the growth hormone in certain basketball players, the elevated production of RBCs in certain cases of athleticism, metabolism and the conversion of muscle mass in weight loss, or larger wingspans among swimmers. Here, sporting performance is thought simply as a result of an excess of testosterone in the body and not because of the multiplicity of factors (biological, but also social) that result in these women becoming athletes at the highest level.

In 2014, another runner went through the sieve of sporting gender verification politics. Dutee Chand was removed at last minute from the list of athletes to participate in the Commonwealth Games in Scotland after the Athletic Federation of India (AFI) publicly reported that the athlete had “failed” a test, designating herself ineligible to compete as a woman. In the beginning of 2015, Dutee sued IAAF and AFI, appealing the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland against the resolutions of hyperandrogenism. In July of the same year, CAS’s final decision was released over Dutee’s case, where the three judges responsible concluded that there was no scientific evidence that proves that athletes with high count of natural testosterone in the body posses  a significant advantage in sporting performance and, consequently, that there is a reason to exclude them from competing as women. Not only did this decision win Dutee the chance to return to compete nationally and internationally, but it also opened up a jurisprudence that suspended all present resolutions of hyperandrogenism in sporting committees and federations for a period of two years. If IAAF is unable to produce scientific data to back such resolutions by the end of July 2017, they will be nullified by the tribunal.

There are a few weeks left before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In April of this year, Caster Semenya qualified for the 800m, becoming a contender for Olympic gold in the category. At the end of June, she also classified for the 400m and the 1500m. On the 25th of June, in the second to last championship scheduled before the qualification period ends, Dutee Chand also succeeded in reaching qualification for the Olympics. She ran the 100m in 11.30 seconds (the limit for qualification was 11.32 seconds) and became the second Indian runner to participate in the Games, the first since 1980.

Even with the suspension of the hyperandrogenism resolution, the COI released a statement November of last year that, on one side, advances in concerns aligned with trans rights by permitting the eligibility of these athletes without requiring reassignment surgery and, on the other side, reaffirms their unfamiliarity over human rights within the politics of verifying the gender of intersex athletes by encouraging the IAAF and other sporting federations to produce material supporting the hyperandrogenism resolution. At the same time that they permit athletes who are trans men to compete with restrictions in the male category and athletes who are trans women to compete in the female category after proving that their testosterone count is below 10 nmol/L during their period of eligibility in whichever competition, intersex athletes continue to be discriminated through arbitrary guidelines. The Medical Council of the COI recommend, in conclusion, that, “to avoid discrimination”, athletes who are intersex who are “not eligible for female competition should be eligible to compete in male competition”.

In relation to the stories mentioned here where athletes with intersexual variations experience coercive and humiliating evaluations in spite of sterilizing and aesthetic procedures in order to guarantee their eligibility to compete as women in a certain sporting category, it is incredibly disturbing that the COI suggests that it is not discriminatory that a woman with hyperandrogenism be assigned as a man in a competition. Keeping this in mind, it is fundamentally important to monitor the proceedings of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as it continues its production of truths about the sexual body and its sporting capacities, proliferated by these committees and federations. These politics, resolutions, and proceedings do not point only to the necessity of a classification and normalization of the bodies of these athletes. This is not, therefore, only an attempt to reinstitute an assumption of equality of sex/gender within the athletes in their sporting categories but also to monitor the bodies and lives of those who destabilize models and, even without knowing, question the consistencies and certainties that are produced daily within and because of normative processes (of regulation of sexuality, of variations and bodily expressions outside the binary code of sex/gender, of ethnic and racial affiliations, of global divisions between north and south) that affect everyone, although through different manners.