Intersex athletes in Women's sport

Discussion in 'Pro Cycling (Road and Track Racing)' started by Crackle, 23 Aug 2016.

  1. Crackle

    Crackle Pah

    OK I don't really know where to put this but as I'm coming at this from a sporting perspective I've gone for pro cycling even though it's not primarily about cycling either. It is though extremely thought provoking about all womens' sport including cycling.

    The other thing to say is I don't yet fully grasp all of the issues, so if my terminology seems clumsy, that's why.

    What brought it to my attention was the women's 800m in Rio and the picture of Semenya reaching out but being ignored by Bishop and Sharp. I know the controversy surrounding Semenya but I didn't know all of it and I thought, well Sharp finished 6th so 5th if Semenya was excluded as she once effectively was under IAAF intersex rules and treatment. And then I looked at the other podium finishers and I began to see just how deep this issue ran, as both are also rumoured to be intersex.

    Rumour is something that is currently part and parcel of the intersex issue because no current boundaries of female gender exist. Defining a gender boundary is not so simple as saying xx=women, xy=man. This, by the way, excludes how someone might identify, which is a whole different issue and here I mean gender category for the purposes of competing in sport.

    So how can it not be simple. Well the issue isn't new for a start nor is it straightforward. This BBC article gives a pretty good overview of both the current situation as to why Semenya is now competing freely again and the history of sport and gender (Another view from a slightly more inflammatory source is here).

    There are a couple of things worth noting in the BBC article, one is the testosterone cut off and how in athletes there is a wide overlap of testosterone in male and female athletes which we don't see in the normal population, two is that in 2013, female athletes from developing countries have already had extensive genital surgery and how the governing bodies and the IAAF had, until the Chand case, normalised the idea that such surgery and drug treatments should even be considered as ethical, by enforcing a cut-off limit for testosterone which has now been argued to be arbitrary and unethical (see the Chand CAS ruling). Hand in hand with this is the way the women concerned have been exposed and vilified, sometimes reading about governing bodies concerns in the papers before any official contact. Naturally they've found their life in tatters with a few attempting suicide.

    So a divide exists where intersex athletes and their supporters argue that what nature has given them is no different from someone having a high VO2 max or long legs or big lungs or better oxygenation and those who wish to protect the gender boundaries of sport.

    There is little doubt of the effects of Testosterone where it is effective, as it isn't always in intersex athletes (see María José Martínez-Patiño case), measured in runners as about a 12% difference between the sexes, touched on in the BBC article and in greater depth by Joanna Harper and seen in Semeneya's times when she was taking drugs to suppress her testosterone levels compared to when she wasn't.

    I'm not generally a fan of Ross Tucker but this interview between Tucker and Joanna Harper, mentioned further up, is a long and worthy read covering most of the relevant issues.

    So I find myself slightly shocked at the extent of this issue which I had not previously appreciated and just how much of an effect it has on women's sport and at the same time I don't see an easy answer. For my own part I think it's important to protect the gender boundaries for all, including intersex because as Harper put it, If we value women’s equality, it is imperative that we protect the ability of all women to succeed in sports. At the same time though, how can you impose a definition on what constitutes a gender boundary. Well the IAAF has got two years to come up with that one and how to then manage it and right now there's no real agreement how.
    Last edited: 23 Aug 2016
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  2. Buddfox

    Buddfox Über Member

    Great post. A South African friend of mine shared a long article on Semenya, from which I have extracted the following scientific points about gender which were new to me:

    "Caster Semenya is a South African woman (‪#‎TeamSA‬) who will begin her run for gold in the 800 on Wednesday. You may remember her because she's been embroiled in controversy ever since 2009 when she burst onto the track scene as an 18-year old. The storm isn't because of doping but because of her sex (as in male and female). As we move on here, keep two things in mind about sex and gender. First, gender is a social construct - whether YOU perceive yourself to be male or female. Caster is NOT transgender. She did NOT change from a man to a woman. Second, sex (as opposed to gender) is a biological trait and not as simple as most believe it is. Sex is not binary - male or female. There is a spectrum people fall onto with sex and MOST fall more or less as what we classify male or female. Caster is different.

    At base, most tend to think of sex as body parts. It isn't. A more advanced understanding looks to genetics - more specifically chromosomes. In school, we learned that XY is male and XX is female. But it isn’t always so. Why? We must go deeper. There are genes on each chromosome that can affect sex. You can have an XY female and an XX male. This is what's known as intersex. It's 100% genetics. In fact, it happens to about 1 in 20,000 people in the U.S. That's about 16,000 total people in our country. People can also get EXTRA chromosomes, making them XXY (Klinefelter’s syndrome) or XYY, even XXXXX.

    Caster has hyperandrogenism - an intersex condition characterized by naturally-occurring high levels of testosterone (High-T). Instead of a uterus, she has internal testes that never descended. In most all other ways, she’s a woman, except for this. She didn’t choose it. And Caster doesn’t take steroids (exogenous testosterone). She produces it naturally in her body (endogenous testosterone). Physically, women with high-T can develop with the look of a man - for example, large muscles and a deep voice, both of which Caster has. The issue with Caster is that testosterone can also be a significant positive factor in athletic performance.


    This isn't Caster's fault. She was truly and absolutely born this way. It's 100% genetic. This woman just loves to run and compete. That's it. Caster’s fastest time is still two full seconds off the world record set in 1983. In fact, her best 800 time is only the 12th best ever run by a woman in the 800. We just happen to be in a period of time where the world’s best female 800m runners aren’t putting up historically fast times so she’s excelling in her placing."

    This lead me to the following article on Yahoo, which covers off the point you make about other genetic differences in athletes:

    I would recommend reading the whole article, but the main point I would highlight here is its reference to Michael Phelps' tall height and large feet (by comparison to Ryan Lochte who is shorter) and to Kevin Durant as being taller and therefore closer to the basketball ring. But it's not the differences in and of themselves that make for interesting comment, it's the observation drawn by the author that these genetic advantages are celebrated in these athletes, but Semenya's genetic advantage (if indeed it is an advantage, which is not proven) is reviled. I don't understand why we respond to the spectrum of gender differently to other genetic advantages. It's a shame - certainly Semenya didn't bring this upon herself.
    Last edited by a moderator: 24 Aug 2016
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  3. Flying_Monkey

    Flying_Monkey Toll Collector on the Road to Nowhere

    She's a woman. She has natural advantages. The suggestion that she should have surgery or take drugs to limit her natural performance is like saying that Usain Bolt should have his legs shortened or Phelps (mentioned above) should have his foot and hand size reduced. It is interesting and instructive that it is only women that we suggest should be 'normalized' through surgery and/or drugs, not men...
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  4. swansonj

    swansonj Guru

    If the choices are "man" or "woman", she clearly is a woman. But by saying "she's a woman", are we not implicitly accepting the view that biological sex is binary, when it clearly isn't?

    We've accepted that gender and sexuality are not binary, shouldn't we do the same for sex?
  5. swansonj

    swansonj Guru

    Also, I think, largely women from the developing world? This is about power and control, and it seems to be not just about the need for men to control women but for white people to control black people.
  6. theclaud

    theclaud It's teeceegawnmaaaad

    Also, ones who win stuff.
    velovoice and RedRider like this.
  7. 400bhp

    400bhp Guru

    If we choose to define people by gender, then we must accept a binary outcome with no overlap. Either these women run as women or they run as men.

    There should be no suppressants on performance which I really do find vile. Observationally, it reminds me of the suppressant of gay men post war.

    I'm struggling why (as society) we want to hold people back in this way? Isn't it just natural that these types of people in this sport will rise to the top?

    Who is really against these women competing?
    dellzeqq likes this.
  8. RedRider

    RedRider Pulling through

    I found this image sad and thought it went to the truth of Semenya's predicament. It made me realise how hard she's worked for her success.
    r04DiE, theclaud and dellzeqq like this.
  9. coffeejo

    coffeejo Ælfrēd

    West Somerset
    My first impressions echo what has already been said: if someone's taking drugs etc to enhance their performance, then take action as it's cheating. However, you can't "cheat" if you're achieving what your body is capable of. I don't think one can argue against talent/genetics, training/equipment and nutrition.
  10. fimm

    fimm Veteran

    I would encourage people to read the interview between Ross Tucker and Joanna Harper linked to above. Harper has a unique perspective on this as she is a transgender woman who was and is a keen runner both before and after her transition, and also a Sports Scientist (actually I'll quote her description of herself as “scientist first, an athlete second, and a transgender person third”.)

    I've picked this bit of the interview to quote to try and sum up her views. But you really need to read the whole interview.
    "I would suggest that .. anyone ... who sees themselves as a woman, should be allowed to live as one. I believe that social gender should be entirely determined by self-identification. I was proud to be part of the IOC panel that recommended support for gender self-identification.
    I do, however, support the right of athletic federations such as the IOC or IAAF to create a de facto athletic gender by preventing those athletes who carry a large testosterone-based advantage from competing against the vast majority of women.
    I would further suggest that, while it might not be a right, success in sports is one of the greatest advancements in women’s lives. If we value women’s equality, it is imperative that we protect the ability of all women to succeed in sports."
    summerdays likes this.
  11. dellzeqq

    dellzeqq pre-talced and mighty

    This has nothing to do with genetics, and everything to do with money.

    Sport has always been about beautiful bodies, and, these days, with television close-ups of fully made up women athletes, about beautiful faces. And, by beauty, I mean the kind of beauty that wears skimpy clothes as it adorns and sells products, and, beyond that, the kind of beauty that says 'this is the race of humans we wish ourselves to be'. The modern Olympics are not nice, not clever, but they do get a lot of bums on seats and they do shift a whole heap of products.

    That is Sebastian Coe's problem. He's got a really, really big product to sell, and Lynsey Sharp is a better bet than Caster Semenya. Michael Phelps might have freakishly large feet, but his advantage is no hindrance to the selling of the Olympics. As Michael Johnson wisely pointed out, those running with Usain Bolt are competing for second place, but Usain Bolt's easy, outgoing manner is the stuff that shifts broadband and insoles by the bucketload. Coe sees every race as a franchise, and, given that athletics is, put bluntly, on its way out, he's got to make every race pay its way.

    We're cyclists. We all know full well that genetics will sort the scorchers from the duffers, and, although one can make a difference with money or drugs, one type of body will almost certainly prevail over another.

    Lynsey Sharp has a genetic makeup that will take her (with the help of more government cash than most athletes can dream of) to the 800 metre Olympic final. We now know it will not win her the gold medal, although since she's slower than Kelly Holmes and about five hundred other runners at this distance that may be no bad thing. That's a cross she'll have to bear, just as we have come to terms with the knowledge that, however much we spend on our fancy bicycles, we'll never ever get up a hill like Darwin Atapuma. We can cry about it or we make the most of what we've got. My advice to Ms. Sharpe is that, in a world dominated by appearances crying is not a good look, and that she should make the most of what she's got, and console herself with the limited commercial opportunities that a sixth place will bring to her. She might even reflect on the embarrassment she caused others.
    Last edited: 24 Aug 2016
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  12. dellzeqq

    dellzeqq pre-talced and mighty

    and paid for by the IAAF
  13. Flying_Monkey

    Flying_Monkey Toll Collector on the Road to Nowhere

    You do realise that transgender has got nothing to do with this, and that being transgender gives Harper no special insight into Semanya's situation? Her arguments stand or fall on their own merits not on her positionality.
    Buddfox, theclaud and TinyMyNewt like this.
  14. OP

    Crackle Pah

    You can make this issue about many things and many things have been mentioned and are entirely relevant. Money, power, control, societal standards etc... it's pretty hard to separate any of them or anyone flying their particular flag. My own thinking on the matter is almost certainly a product of who I am and my circumstances.

    I'm not sure that comparison to men's sport is entirely relevant, this seems pertinent only to women's sport because men are already at the top of the sporting tree, having all the advantages of chemistry and physique. It's for that reason you couldn't have unisex competition. As the running example has already made clear, top elite male athletes are going to be 12% faster. So you have to divide sport and currently it's divided along gender lines, xy, xx. But as we now see but has always been the case, this is far from satisfactory, the trouble is, the only water it really muddies is women's sport.

    If you strip things back then sport is something which acts as an inspiration to us, a motivator and an enjoyable experience. It keeps us fit, healthy, it gives us role models and it's a source of pride, to list but a few of its benefits. We need sport for these basic things. I go back to what Harper said about equality in sport being intrinsic to equality in society. By allowing intersex athletes to compete on equal terms you're undermining that equality and removing some of the motivations which make people, women, do sport. It's no longer seen as equal by the vast majority of people. And we are talking of a majority here. Intersex athletes account for a tiny portion of the population but are hugely over-represented in sport it seems. At the same time barring intersex athletes or putting an arbitrary limit on their abilities is no solution. So where do you go?

    Ultimately if you found a way of separating intersex from xx and xy you teeter on the brink of separating all sports people on the grounds of chemical disposition, medical syndrome, oxygenation levels, leg length, you name it. I think you need to do it. Sport should reflect society and it should reflect society for exactly the reasons of equality already mentioned. I also think it's necessary to protect and validate those who are intersex and currently hide their condition in order to avoid the kind of ridicule and vilification that Semenya is experiencing.
    John the Monkey likes this.
  15. TinyMyNewt

    TinyMyNewt An execrable pun

    South coast, UK
    Does 'equality in sport' really mean 'equal chance of winning' though? There must be athletes, male and female, competing at all levels, including the Olympics, who know they have next to no chance of beating the rest of the field. Why do they continue to take part?
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