Gender-testing for ‘suspicious-looking’ female Olympic athletes in Beijing

Women athletes who might secretly be men (or, as the Times Online charmingly phrases it, “suspicious-looking” woman athletes) will be forced to take a sex test in the Beijing Olympic Games, Olympic officials have announced.

“Suspect athletes will be evaluated from their external appearance by experts,” said Professor Tian Qinjie of Peking Union Medical College Hospital, who will be in charge of the testing. “They will then undergo four tests, including blood tests, to examine their sex hormones, genes and chromosomes for sex determination.”

The sex-testing is a huge step back for the International Olympic Committee, which stopped the practice on ethical grounds in 1999. It’s an invasive and humiliating process, in which women who ‘fail’ will have to endure a physiological examination of their genitals, according to the New York Times.

Mary Peters, Britain’s gold medal-winning pentathlete at the 1972 Munich Olympics, described the sex tests as “the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known… The doctors proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance, amounted to a grope.”

Not only is the test a massive invasion of privacy, it’s also laughably ineffective. Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to sex than male or female. Depending on who you believe, between 0.018% and 1.7% of people are born with some degree of sexual ambiguity or chromosomal abnormalities. That means that somewhere between one in 500 and one in 59 women have a condition that will give them no competitive advantage, but will make then ‘fail’ the test.

So sex-testing is invasive and ineffective. What else? Well, it also reveals some rather nasty sexism and homophobia. After all, no male athletes will be subjected to this. And not all female athletes will be tested, only those who look ‘suspicious’.

What, exactly, does ‘suspicious’ mean? Will they only test women who they, these ‘experts’, decide look unwomanly? How about women who cut their hair into ‘unfeminine’ styles, or women who don’t shave their legs? Will women wearing blue trainers be eyed suspiciously, while those in pink trainers can continue unhindered?

Or perhaps the femininity of female athletes will be judged on performance rather than aesthetics. Men are naturally faster and stronger than women, so presumably if an athlete excels in her discipline she will arouse suspicion. Ladies! Don’t jump too high, or punch too hard – someone might think you’re not really a woman.

As for trans people – officially, and perhaps surprisingly, sex-testing doesn’t really affect them. Since 2004, people who have experienced gender realignment and hormone treatment have been able to compete on the same basis as cisexual people. We can only speculate what would happen if a transwoman’s sex was considered ‘suspicious’ by the Olympic authorities.

The only thing about sex and gender that the Olympic committee know for sure is this: the only women who are undeniably 100% women are royalty, as Princess Anne was the only female athlete who didn’t have to have to submit a sex test at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. And of course it had nothing to do with the fact that she was the daughter of Canada’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.

What makes a ‘real woman’? Is it chromosones, testosterone levels, sex organs, or a love of the colour pink? I don’t know, and actually I don’t care. But what I do know is that I sure as hell don’t want to be told what it is to be a woman by a group of self-appointed experts from the Olympic Committee.

[Cross-posted at Lesbilicious]

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