From the IAAF to the IOC: another (not so) fine mess

February 17, 2010

After last year’s furore about the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) appalling treatment of Caster Semenya and the ensuing “agreement” (as reported in the New York Times), the casual observer might have thought that the matter of so-called “gender testing” in athletics had been settled.

However, last month it was reported in The Guardian that:

[…] the 19-year-old athlete would be allowed to race only once the IAAF had cleared her. “We can only allow her to participate in events once we get clarity from the IAAF, not at this stage,” [Ray Mali of Athletics South Africa (ASA)] told Reuters.

So apparently the IAAF has still not reached a decision.

And, while the IAAF prevaricates, it seems to have handed the baton of crass insensitivity over to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). According to BBC News:

In January a symposium of experts in Miami concluded that some athletes discovered to have gender ambiguities be advised to have treatment, possibly even surgery, to continue competing at international level.

[…]

The IOC’s Medical Commission will not say what criteria they use to define female gender, so what exactly do they consider an ambiguity?

Just… what? Is this “symposium of experts” really going to “advise” intersex athletes to have surgery before they’ll be allowed to compete? What if there’s no proven medical need for it? What if those athletes refuse? My reading of it is that the IOC is saying that simply being born different – in one of the myriad ways that humans are born different – is enough to justify surgery. The Organisation Intersex International (OII), one of the largest international intersex organisations, in its Declaration of Fundamental Principles has denounced enforced surgery carried out on intersex people as “totalitarian, sexist oppression” and I, for one, am frankly dismayed that the IOC seems oblivious to these concerns. I find it hard to understand how this proposal is about anything other than an attempt to enforce normalisation on female athletes whom the IOC perceives as having undefined “gender ambiguities”.

More from the BBC News report:

Last week the International Olympic Committee’s General Assembly was briefed by the head of its Medical Commission Professor Arne Ljungqvist who recommended that “strategically located centres of excellence should be established to which athletes with a DSD (disorders of sex development) could be referred and, if necessary, further investigated and treated.”

The OII has been campaigning against the use of the term “disorders of sex development” since at least 2006. There is a comprehensive list of reasons why the OII objects to the term here: yet again, the IOC seems to be ignoring the wishes of intersex people.

But I wonder if there’s even more to this than so-called concerns about the health of a comparatively few female athletes with a “disorder of sex development”. Is the IOC simply using the Caster Semenya case as a pretext for launching its own attack on any and all women athletes who don’t conform to stereotypical female gender norms?

As Patricia Nell Warren writes in her perceptive analysis IOC and gender inquisition:

So the whole male arena of sport – and the egos and careers of male athletes – have, so far, been rigorously protected from gender scrutiny. In my opinion, this scrutiny should now happen. It’s only fair that the torture instruments of cultural discomfort about gender appearance be applied to men as well. And I’ll bet that, if enough male competitors – and the nations sending them out there – were to find themselves being figuratively “burned at the stake,” and the gold-medal prospects of a few outstanding male athletes destroyed, the way Semenya’s might have been, the outcry would be such that the IOC will hastily backtrack.

There’s an old saying that, when you find yourself in a hole, first thing you should do is stop digging. It’s advice the IOC should perhaps consider following. Then, maybe, it can think about how it’s going to get itself out of this not so fine mess. If it wasn’t for the fact that the implications of what it’s saying are so jaw-droppingly outrageous and fundamentally sexist, watching it struggle might otherwise have made quite an entertaining spectator sport.

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Cross-posted at The F-Word

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