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The gender police are back

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Female Olympic athletes had a 10-year reprieve from not having to prove they actually are women, but it appears the gender police are back for the Vancouver Games. The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney were the first Olympics since 1968 that women athletes did not have to be "tested" through a buccal smear to make sure they were female. These tests, which used a swab of saliva from the athletes, can have a 20 per cent false-positive rate, something the IOC chose to ignore. Instead they sent women packing, telling them to feign an injury or be exposed as not really being female. Needless to say these quasi-scientific "proofs" of sexuality devastated women who knew they were women, no matter what the faulty test read. Finally in 2000, the IOC's athlete's commission persuaded them to get rid of this ridiculous voyeurism. Women no longer have to have their "gender identity card" verified before they competed.

Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations for the IOC, wrote in January 2010, despite the Sydney 2000 changes, "the IOC Medical Commission can ask for a gender test to be carried out should it detect a suspicious case at the time of the Games."

The IOC held a symposium in Miami, Fla., in January to "attempt to identify the most up-to-date medical/biological science with regard to the gender issue that may be of relevance to sport and which will help sports bodies to deal with potential cases." "Gender issue" can mean just about anything, which is why the IOC uses the phrase. Scientists at the Florida International University met with the IOC and the International Athletic Foundation (IAF) in conjunction with the 2nd World Conference on Hormonal and Genetic Basis of Sexual Differentiation Disorders. The IOC is most worried about a condition referred to as "disorders of sexual development."

In the eyes of the IOC, and obviously those in the medical world who dream up names for conditions that place people outside conventional sexuality, not being biologically absolutely a man or absolutely a woman is seen as a disorder. The IOC says their concern is about fairness, as women who have one of the DSDs (once called intersexed, which makes more sense) may have a biological advantage over women who don't have DSD characteristics. This is indeed a murky area as all athletes at the Olympic level have genetic advantages of different kinds.

All Olympic athletes train very hard, and are committed to their dream, whatever that may be, but to make a national team certain "gifts" have to be in place biologically. Endurance athletes will go nowhere without very high MaxVO2s (maximal oxygen consumption) and anaerobic thresholds. You can increase both through training to some extent, but if you are not born with the genetic information that allows your body to deliver great amounts of oxygen per kilogram of weight and then allows your body to "work" for long periods of time at a level that is not far below your maximum heart rate, you aren't going to the Olympics in the endurance events. The only sprinters who make it to the 100-metre final have a different profile, but they too need to be genetically gifted as do gymnasts as do tennis players, and so on.

In this highly gendered world, one person's genetic gift is another person's disorder. Where is the line in the sand for what an athlete brings to the start line courtesy of Mother Nature? The IOC does not recommend to Kenyan long-distance runners or Norwegian cross-country skiers that they get an operation to reduce their super-high MaxVO2s because they have an unfair advantage, but this is what they tell intersexed or SDS athletes to do about their sexuality.

This recent flurry of activity to determine the definition of what a woman athlete is became a crisis for the men who run international sport because they did not know what to do about Caster Semenya. At only 18 she became the 800-metre world champion in track and field. She was first tricked by the South African Athletics Association, which secretly administered a gender test, and then was forced to endure another one by the International Athletic Associations Federation (IAAF) last August. This process was an institutional rape, as the IAAF treated Semenya like a criminal and a cheat, while discussing and speculating publicly about the most intimate details of what should have been the private world of her sexuality and genitalia.

In the end the IAAF declared that Semenya could compete again and that they wouldn't take her gold medal away. How kind of them. Now the IOC has come up with a list of rules to be utilized should a suspicious looking woman be found at the Olympics. Sport authorities, "in conjunction with the relevant medical authorities, have a responsibility to follow up on cases of DSD that arise under their jurisdiction." There should also be "an increase in education and awareness of DSD within the sport community" and this awareness will be heightened through "pre-participation health examinations" to help with "identifying athletes with DSD."

The IOC wants a "precise diagnosis... established expeditiously utilizing requisite expertise" and "a management plan be drawn up if treatment is necessary (recommended)." To do this they want "to establish strategically located centres of excellence at which athletes with DSD can, if necessary, be diagnosed and treated and that rules be put in place to determine eligibility of athletes for sport competition on a case-by-case basis both prior to and following diagnosis of a DSD, including when an athlete is undergoing treatment for DSD or refuses treatment for a DSD."

That last line says it all: Let us decide and change who you are physically and sexually, or get out of sport.

Laura Robinson is a former provincial champion in Nordic skiing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2010 A12

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