Caster Semenya , a South African runner, first came under scrutiny for her appearance in 2009. As the New York Times reported, the South African National Olympic Committee called in Semenya for testing. The committee did not tell her what the tests were for, and she did not consent to gender testing; nevertheless, she soon learned that she was temporarily suspended from competition. Many believed that Semenya should not be allowed to compete because of her incredible speed and “butch” appearance, as noted in a 2009 New Yorker profile.
After the results of the gender test were released, the committee deliberated over whether Semenya would be permitted to compete, and during this period, she was barred from participation in any races. Eventually, the committee permitted Semenya to race, and she most recently competed in the Rio Olympics, where she won gold.
Throughout history, the characteristics that separate those who are allowed to compete as women from those who are not has been in flux. Banned athletes have genetic conditions that affect certain biological aspects of their bodies, but it is not entirely clear which of these conditions, if any, give individuals the “unfair advantage” claimed by many, including International Association of Athletics Federations witness Stéphane Bermon. Meanwhile, the public praises Olympic athletes (such as sprinter Usain Bolt, swimmer Michael Phelps, and volleyballer Missy Franklin) whose abnormal physical features, a gift of genetics, enable their athletic dominance.
One major challenge faced by regulators is defining someone as female. According to the New York Times, estimates of the number of intersex individuals vary from one in five thousand to one in sixty. A wide variety of genetic conditions fall under the category of intersex. Some people have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but are born with ambiguous genitalia. Some appear female at birth because of a genetic mutation, but have XY chromosomes, undescended testes, and develop deeper voices and increased muscle mass during puberty. Others with XY chromosomes and undescended testes develop rounded hips and breasts.
International sports committees used to require the athletes to confirm that they believed themselves to be female. Eventually, a predominately male Olympic Committee instituted a laboratory test because because of concerns about women with masculine features. The test was required to confirm that the athlete had XX chromosomes. Examination of athletes’ genitalia was another method used to determine whether athletes could compete. But many athletes with ambiguous genitalia had hormone levels that were the same as females. Recently, athletes have been banned from competition on the grounds that they have high levels of testosterone. Even though this factor has the most validity in determining athletic advantage, there are still many subtleties that prevent it from being a foolproof measure. For example, individuals can have high levels of testosterone but not the receptors necessary for testosterone to increase muscle mass, as it normally would. Conversely, people can have low levels of testosterone and be male by all other measures.
Importantly, all Olympic athletes have genetic quirks responsible for some of their athletic abilities. But commentators praise these features, rather than use them to disqualify the success of the athletes. For example, scientists studied Usain Bolt in order to understand what makes him the fastest man in the world. Firstly, he stands at an impressive height of 6-foot-5, giving him a much longer stride. Penn State Associate Professor Stephen Piazza wrote that although Bolt takes steps at the same rate as his competitors, “his stride length is about seven percent longer and that’s really what allows him to run the 100 meters as fast as he is able to.” Furthermore, Bolt likely possesses the gene ACTN3, which has been colloquially dubbed “the sprinting gene.” The gene codes for fast-twitch muscle fibers that allow for stronger and faster muscles. Studies show that a disproportionate number of Jamaicans carry this gene. Some researchers believe the activity of the gene is assisted by the aluminum-rich soil of Jamaica.
Swimmer Missy Franklin has physical abnormalities that allow her to be such an incredible swimmer, yet no one questions her eligibility to compete. Franklin is 6-foot-2 with impressively large hands (8.5 inches). This allows her to take longer strokes and beat her competitors in touching the wall. Franklin wears a very large size thirteen; only about three in one thousand pairs of women’s shoes sold are that large. Franklin’s upbringing in a high altitude helped to build her endurance. Franklin herself agrees that her “physique is definitely so helpful. My feet, my parents always say, are like my built-in flippers…I definitely don’t think I would be where I am in swimming without the body that I have.” Yet no one says that Franklin should not be allowed to compete because of these features.
Athletes are being banned from competing because of genetic conditions that they cannot control and that are not proven to aid performance. Furthermore, most Olympic athletes are as successful as they are due to genetic abnormalities. Writer Adam Hadhazy said, “I suspected if we could comprehensively measure all Olympians in finals, we would see significant differences [when compared to non-Olympians] in genetic profiles.” Given the difficulty of defining gender and the advantageous genetics of most Olympic athletes, committees must be especially careful when approaching cases such as Semenya’s.