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Leveling The Playing Field: Is It Obtainable Within The Olympic Games?

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Sport has been formally organized and segregated mainly into two different binary sex categories that are acknowledged by sport governing bodies. The structure and culture of sporting institutions often reproduce hegemonic masculinity, racism, and gender inequalities (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Sex becomes a binary meaning; there are only two sexes, male and female (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). With that being said, there has been no recognized place within competitive sports for athletes who exist outside of the dichotomous sex categories and who subsequently “fail” sex testing (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). This perpetuates the notion of gendered discourses regarding the eligibility of nonnormative bodies to partake in international sporting events (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Sports organizers have worked tirelessly to maintain the prestige of fair play by policing the boundaries around gendered bodies, which, consequently, results in the prohibiting of athletes who are different (Buzuvis, 2016). Athletes such as Caster Semenya are not only eliminated from sport but continue to be securitized and humiliated based on the uncertainty of their gender (Buzuvis, 2016). Accordingly, those who are by virtue of their intersex or transgender position are believed to compete with athletic advantages (Buzuvis, 2016). We begin to see how Caster Semenya is a product of Olympic policies in which the assumption of unfair advantages become highly contested through the basis of gender verification.

Caster Semenya is a South African female middle-distance runner who won gold in the 800-meter event at the World Championships in Berlin on August 19, 2009. She beat her competitors by a full 2.45 seconds, finishing at 1:55:45, 7.5 seconds faster than her previous times in that event (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to undergo gender verification on the same day that she won gold. The reasoning being was based on the criticism surrounding Semenya’s gender “ambiguity” due to her deep “masculine” voice, improvements in her running time, and her muscular build (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). The sex test results, which were not formally introduced to the public, concluded that Semenya had an androgen insensitivity syndrome that coincides with her being born with an intersex condition based on her testosterone levels being three times the “normal” female level (Buzuvis, 2016). An intersex condition occurs when there is any inconsistency between the external and internal genitals. Therefore, confusion arises when an individual has the chromosomal makeup of a female and contains female ovaries, but externally expresses more masculine features (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). This results in the abnormal release of sex hormones. Semenya identifies as a woman and should be able to compete in female sporting events. The IAAF ended up banning her from running in future events. This action was in correspondence to, not only the conviction that Semenya was being portrayed as a “cheater,” but that her success was blamed on her having unfair genetic advantages, which establishes a threat to having a level playing field. Yet, there has been no scientific evidence that states there is a direct link to having increased levels of testosterone that equate to higher athletic performance (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). In 2010, a panel of medical experts allowed Semenya to start competing in international sporting events again. Her story brought renewed pressures on sports governing bodies to develop new rules for ways to handle athletes with sex development disorders (Sullivan, 2011). With that being said, if Semenya wanted to compete in sporting events again, she would need to endure hormone treatments to decrease her testosterone levels in order for there to be “fair” competition amongst all female athletes (Sullivan, 2011). Semenya then went on to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and won gold in the 800-meter running event, but once again, her body was a target for injustice. Still, in 2019, her gender vagueness is an ongoing process within the problematic protocols of the binary divisions that are put in place surrounding intersex athletes.

Historically, sex verification began at the 1936 Berlin Games, which was proposed by Avery Brundage to root out gender fraud (Buzuvis, 2016). Gender testing was implemented because of German high jumper “Dora” Ratjen, who participated in women’s sporting events but was actually a man named Herman that disguised himself as a female to compete and win under the Nazi regime (Buzuvis, 2016). This sustained the assumption that males are superior and are the dominant gendered body. From this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandated gender verification for female athletes beginning in 1968. The rationale was on the basis to prevent men masquerading as women to gain an unfair advantage in sport (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). In 1900, mandatory sex testing was only employed against female athletes (Buzuvis, 2016). Some of these compulsory examinations were very invasive processes such as nude parades and Barr body tests. Naked parades arose in the Cold War era, which entailed female athletes to stand in front of a panel of Olympic officials while they examine the athlete’s naked body looking for specific genital (Buzuvis, 2016). Following that, in 1992, the Barr body chromosomal test focused on female athlete’s genetic makeup. It used scientific technology to visually verify sex yet showed that it had many limitations within determining accurate results (Buzuvis, 2016). In 2000, involuntary sex-testing was abolished and replaced with suspicion-based testing (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). From this, the IOC gained the power to sex test any female athlete if they were deemed “hyper-masculine” or did not fit the standard womanly figure (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Each of these examinations drew a line in defining who is “naturally” female, but the lines differ on the inclusion of certain athletes (Semach, 2019). This calls into question why sex testing is mandatory when the results fluctuate and are inaccurate depending on what sex testing policy is currently implemented. A critique arose around the IOC and IAAF in how they are so quick to define individuals into man and woman categories, rather than thinking about how these bodies came to be and exist socially (Semach, 2019). This becomes a current problem within the binary sporting division.

Women are sex tested when they carry out explosive athletic performances, although sport, by, definition requires robust physical competency (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Female athletes only get summoned to perform sex evaluations if they are winning competitions, as they are presented to be a risk within the realm of sports. Many female athletes have “failed” sex testing due to having a condition called hyperandrogenism, high levels of male sex hormones and androgens in women (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Santhi Soundaranjan is a female middle-distance Indian runner who got forced by the IAAF to undergo suspicion-based gender verification at the 2006 Doha Asian Games (Sullivan, 2011). It was concluded that she had “abnormal chromosomes,” which led to the speculation that she was born with androgen insensitivity. The IAAF then disqualified her and stripped her of her silver medal because of her “unfair” advantage (Buzuvis, 2016). Duttee Chand is an Indian Sprinter who, in 2014, the IAAF, also requested her to go through gender verification. The evidence revealed that her testosterone levels exceed the standard amount (10nmol/L), which granted her immediate exclusion for participating in women’s sport (Buzuvis, 2016). Great emotional harm and burden are placed on those who were singled out and declared not a true woman (Sullivan, 2011). Governing bodies give female athletes two options regarding their gender. First, they need to comply with a gender verification test, if not, then their second option is to fake an injury and no longer compete in sporting events (Buzuvis, 2016). Therefore, sport becomes an unfriendly and contested site for athletes who go beyond the coercion of what an average body is, such as Caster Semenya.

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The decisions over who is included and excluded from sex-segregated sporting competitions are embedded in the social structure of our society by controlling the gender binary (Sullivan, 2011). There have been multiple, and ever-changing gender examinations brought upon Olympic ruling to acknowledge and include intersex and transgender athletes in sports. This consists of the Stockholm consensus, uniform hormone rule, uniform gender identity rule, and the hybrid approach (Buzuvis, 2016). Looking back on Semenya’s gender examinations, it was revealed that the IAAF policies on how to safely and adequately verify a female athlete’s sex was never articulated to the committee (Buzuvis, 2016). This further restates how feminity testing is not only cruel to athletes but also undermines the confidence within the fairness of women’s sporting events (Buzuvis, 2016). In an attempt to make sporting events fair, the IOC and IAAF set up appropriate rules pertaining to female athletes with hyperandrogenism and androgen insensitivity (Sullivan, 2011). In 2011, the IOC Medical Commission implemented a new testosterone limit that recognizes the eligibility in women competitions as long as their androgen levels are below the “normal range” (Sullivan, 2011). If a female athlete’s sex examination results discovered that her testosterone levels were above 10nmol/L, she would be informed of the conditions and steps to take to compete again. Some of these steps include taking androgen resistances or hormone therapy to suppress their body’s natural testosterone levels. If the athlete complies with these regulations, she will be deemed eligible to partake in sporting events (Sullivan, 2011). Fairness in sport is understood as an adherence to the same rules (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). So, given the definition of fairness in sport, and the natural variations of Caster Semenya’s body due to her sex developmental disorder, she should be deemed fair and be able to compete in sport freely (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013).

A level playing field connects to total equality and fairness amongst all athletes, but for this to be obtainable, all unfair advantages must be monitored to ensure that sport is fair (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). This becomes unrealistic based on the historical, economic, and social provisions of sport (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Given that governing bodies already tolerate a tremendous amount of genetic benefits that are not attainable by all athletes, it reiterates how sport cannot be a level playing field (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). Some of these physical advantages include height and abnormally high lung capacity (Buzuvis, 2016). Additionally, varying financial resources and training conditions contribute hugely to an individual’s athletic ability. Still, again, these are not considered factors that hinder the fair play discourse as they do for those who do not fit into the sex binary present in sport (Buzuvis, 2016). Michael Phelps is an American Olympic swimmer who genetically has unusually large hands and feet that become a natural physical advantage against his competitors. Still, the IOC and IAAF have not made any policies regarding Phelps in the way he begins to dismantle a level playing field. Where in if an athlete such as Caster Semenya, whose testosterone levels are higher than 10nmol/L, she automatically gets linked to having the edge over other athletes, which produces an unlevel playing field (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013). There is an overarching belief in male physical supremacy, which legitimates the gender divide within sports by having no sex-testing policies directed at males. Sporting events will always have athletes with genetic advantages, this is what makes sports so diverse, but if the need for sex testing resides in guaranteeing a level playing field, then why is there no test to determine whether male or other female athletes have testosterone levels that exceed the “normal male range” instead of making assumptions specifically around contested bodies (Cooky & Dworkin, 2013).

The body becomes a contested site in which it reinforces the body hierarchy for athletes with disabilities and intersex conditions as they begin to threaten the institution of sport itself (Corrigan, Paton, Holt, & Hardin, 2010). Additionally, a contested body is a body that is fixed beyond the “normal” body, which creates a tension between dominant normative bodies verse nonnormative bodies (Semach, 2019). In this case, the authoritative body would be seen as a hyper-feminine female athlete, while the nonnormative body would be athletes such as Caster Semenya, who do not possess overtly feminine attributes. Some of these attributes include being slim, toned, having long hair and wearing makeup. According to Foucault, the body in modern-day society represents the contested terrain over which policies and surveillance have been implemented on individual athletes to conform to the bodies that are seen as usual (Corrigan, Paton, Holt, & Hardin, 2010). With that being said, the Olympics can be considered a site of discursive silences upon female athletes through the policing of their bodies within the socially constructed categories of sex and gender (Semach, 2019). The “male gaze” subjects women’s bodies in a sexualized manner within the perception that there are objects merely for the viewing of male desires (Semach, 2019). Within the “male gaze,” there are classifications and hierarchy privileges based on the “ideal body” that represents the physically powerful able-bodied males while ostracising those who are not. Through this belief, the prevalence of dominant discourses, specifically the white male discourse beings to show elitism in deciding what bodies are see seen as attractive and fit the mould of what a female body should resemble (Semach, 2019). This hierarchy becomes complicated through the notion that men and women categories are seen as dominant when compared to intersex and transgender groups, but there also is a hierarchy within hierarchies, which states that male athletes are superior over female athletes, along with transgender athletes are dominant over non-binary athletes (Semach, 2019). Thus, power is grounded in discourse (Corrigan, Paton, Holt, & Hardin, 2010). Caster Semenya and her natural body become patrolled under regulatory practices that define, classify, and marginalize those with intersex conditions as a way to control “unnaturally” looking athletes by conforming them into normative bodies (Corrigan, Paton, Holt, & Hardin, 2010).

Governing bodies have struggled to impose binary sporting divisions on athletes who cannot be sorted that easily, such as Caster Semenya (Buzuvis, 2016). This has a direct correlation to gender categories granting power to the sport’s organizers rather than the athletes themselves. The IOC and IAAF have implemented multiple different examinations to promote inclusivity and instill integrity within female sport. Even though the IOC is moving forward within their policies, they are still enhancing the intersections between sex and gender by disregarding the fact the males are not being subjected to gender verification if they do not fit the hegemonic masculine male body or have an upsurge or reduction in testosterone levels. While women who look visibly masculine rather than feminine, automatically get questioned regarding their gender identity. This symbolizes the white male discourse upon female bodies. The fact is the playing field has never been level, nor will it never be based on the discrimination seen against athletes with intersex conditions. The IOC believes that male athletes who biologically have physical advantages, such as Michael Phelps should not be policed because he is not disrupting the honesty of sport, while Caster Semenya who organically produces higher than average testosterone levels needs to be regulated and under surveillance because she produces a threat to sporting events by “cheating.” Furthermore, the myth of fair play plays a predominant role in the reproduction of masculinity hierarchies. In conclusion, Caster Semyan is a product of Olympic policies in which the assumption of unfair advantages become highly contested through the basis of gender verification.

References

  1. Buzuvis, E. (2016). Hormone Check: Critique of Olympic Rules on Sex and Gender. Wisconsin. Journal of Law, Gender, & Society, 31 (1), 29.
  2. Cooky, C., & Dworkin, S. L. (2013). Policing the Boundaries of Sex: A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and The Caster Semenya Controversy. Journal of Sex Research, 50(2), 103-111.
  3. Corrigan, T. F., Paton, J., Holt, E., & Hardin, M. (2010). Discourses of the “Too Abled”: Contested Body Hierarchies and The Oscar Pistorius Case. International Journal of Sport Communication, 3(3), 288-307.
  4. Semach, T. (2019). Week 5: Gender Constraints [lecture notes]. Retrieved from University of Lethbridge KNES 3120 Moodle site.
  5. Sullivan, C. F. (2011). Gender Verification and Gender Policies in Elite Sport: Eligibility and “Fair Play.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 35(4), 400-419.

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Leveling The Playing Field: Is It Obtainable Within The Olympic Games? (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/leveling-the-playing-field-is-it-obtainable-within-the-olympic-games/
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