With Eye on Olympics, Professor Fights Gender Policing in Athletics

July 26, 2012
Rebecca Jordan-Young

The 2012 London Olympics will present a series of firsts for women athletes: All 205 national teams will have a woman athlete, and the U.S. Olympic team will have more women than men.

But simmering below the surface is a controversial new International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy that restricts competition for female athletes who have naturally high testosterone levels—a change that may have significant impact not only for athletes competing at the 2012 Summer Games, but also for all women athletes.

Among those leading the challenge against the IOC policy is Rebecca Jordan-Young, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard, who is studying the issue of sex verification in sports. Jordan-Young's groundbreaking work is supported by Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference and a Barnard Presidential Research Award.

Claiming the policy perpetuates myths and stereotypes about sex and gender, she has been researching the IOC’s and similar policies, such as that released in 2011 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for track and field.

“Testosterone testing is not a good way to ensure that there’s a fair and level playing field for women athletes,” Jordan-Young said. “We are concerned that such policies only add to the pressure that women athletes already experience to be attractive and even sexy—because physically powerful women upset cultural norms and women athletes are expected to make up for that by playing up feminine attributes.”

The IOC policy, which calls for each nation’s own Olympics Committee to investigate “any perceived deviation in sex characteristics” among female athletes, is especially troubling, she said. “These policies don’t return to systematic or universal testing, but they will increase the scrutiny of women athletes who are perceived as 'unfeminine'.”

Jordan-Young is pursuing her research with Katrina Karkazis of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, an anthropologist who has worked for many years on so-called intersex conditions, or disorders of sex development. In June Jordan-Young, Karkazis and two other colleagues published their critique of the new policies in the "American Journal of Bioethics."

So-called "sex testing" has been going on since the 1930s, and standard biomedical tests were introduced in the 1960s. In 1983, Spain’s best female hurdler, Maria Martinez Patiño, had her athletic career ruined and personal life devastated when she failed a sex test; she successfully sued the IOC and they dropped mandatory tests.

Testing was then done on an ad hoc basis when someone challenged a female athlete’s sex. The issue flared up recently when South African runner Caster Semenya won the women’s 800-meter gold medal in 2009 at the Berlin world championships but was forced to undergo testing because of her muscular build and rapid improvement in times. She had to withdraw from competition until she was cleared by the IAAF in 2010.

“People often overlook that Semenya’s win was big in that particular race, but her time wasn’t actually out of line with other elite women runners,” said Jordan-Young. “Competitors complained about her appearance not being feminine, and that’s really what set off the investigation, which was deeply humiliating. The IAAF came under intense pressure to craft new policies after they were criticized for badly mishandling that case.”

Noting that the technology exists to tell the difference between naturally high testosterone and doping, Jordan-Young says there’s no reason to treat naturally high testosterone levels any differently than other natural variations in biology.

“We think people confuse the two issues because of the idea that testosterone is a male hormone that doesn’t really belong in women’s bodies,” said Jordan-Young, who planned to be in London for the Games. “And if it’s unfair to have testosterone levels higher than other athletes, why not limit men’s levels, too?”

—by Andrea Retzky