Sunday August 14, 2016

As athletes compete in Rio, one Olympic expert says it's time to permanently end sex-testing

800-metre runner Caster Semenya will race in the women's 800 metre in Rio this week.

800-metre runner Caster Semenya will race in the women's 800 metre in Rio this week. (ANja Niedringhaus/Associated Press )

Listen 29:44

Women did not compete in the first modern Olympics in 1896. In fact, the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Courbertin, thought that including female athletes would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incomplete." Others at the time would have used words like unfeminine, unnatural, improper or dangerous.

Women were allowed to compete in tennis and golf at the 1900 Olympics, in swimming in 1912 and track and field by 1928. Now, they participate in all the same sports as men. But the Olympics still observe a strict gender divide - a divide kept in place in part by the controversial practice of sex-testing for female athletes.

Sex tests used to involve a "nude parade," where female athletes had their genitals examined by a doctor. Today, doctors look at chromosomes and testosterone levels, in addition to conducting a physical exam.

As people become more aware of the fluidity of ideas about gender, the more sports official become concern about the gender order. - Janice Forsyth

The primary targets of these tests are women who have lived their entire lives as female, but whose physiology falls outside of what is considered typical for women — like South African runner Caster Semenya. 

Until recently, women whose testosterone levels fell into what sports official consider a "male" range were often banned from competition, over concerns that their physiology made them stronger competitors.

But last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that there wasn't enough scientific evidence to prove that naturally higher levels of testosterone give athletes a significant enough advantage to justify exclusion, and temporarily suspended IAAF restrictions dealing with hyperandrogenism. 

Though the debate over sex-testing often focuses on fairness, Janice Forsyth says sex-testing has less to do with keeping sports fair than it does with social control of women and women's bodies. 

She is a professor in the kinesiology department at Western University, where she studies the social, political, and economic aspects of the Olympic & Paralympic Games. She's also the former director of Western's International Centre for Olympic Studies, a former track and field athlete and a 2002 recipient of the Tom Longboat Award, Canada's top award for Indigenous athletes.

She spoke to guest host Rachel Giese about the social anxieties behind sex-testing and the murky science surrounding testosterone, sex and competitive advantage.

Click the button above to hear Janice Forsyth's conversation with guest host Rachel Giese.