Gender testing in sports: outdated?

A recent article on mentions the rather interesting and bizarre story of Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter race in the IAAF World Championships about a week ago now. The bizarre twist is that Caster was forced to run despite strong controversy about her gender, or specifically, that she “may not be entirely female” as an article in the newspaper The Age says it.

This quote from Caster’s coach, Michael Seme, while at first appearing to be rather defensive of her, really only serves to add to the humiliation:

We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.

I can only hope and pray that quote was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Even if it was, it is still very close to the boundary line of tasteless territory, if not over it.

It’s not just track and field. All throughout women’s sports, it seems like the fashionable thing to do is characterize the best in sport as too “tomboyish” or “mannish” as a derogatory term. And it is derogatory, every bit out of bounds as calling inferior male athletes things like “girly” or even derogatory terms which imply homosexuality, that I will not repeat here.

I think the worst examples are the things I have heard about the WNBA, most notably that most would-be WNBA spectators feel uncomfortable sharing the stands with what they suspect to be homosexual women (when I had the conversations with various people who brought this up, invariably, some very derogatory and unflattering words were used).

Further down we get to the story of Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño, who was stripped of a first-place title when discovered to have XY chromosomes, instead of the expected female XX chromosomes. The effects on Maria were devestating.

While as a practical matter some hard lines do have to be drawn, I think it may be time we as a society reconsider and reframe how we consider gender, particularly that there are multiple aspects of gender identity, many of which may not neatly fit into the two boxes of “male” and “female” we’re used to.

Quoting the article again:

While we are never encouraged to conceive of bodies this way, male and female bodies are more similar than they are distinguishable from each other. When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits.

Indeed, dare I say it, this is what it should be about: training, conditioning, nutrition, practice, and effort, not gender.

Most of the men’s swimming records are still significantly faster than the corresponding women’s records (source: Wikipedia article “List of world records in swimming”) but I suspect over time this will change to the point that one day we’ll see a women’s record faster than the corresponding men’s record. A bold prediction? Yes. But not outside the realm of possibility.

But until it’s obvious having two record books is silly, let’s not reward the winners with an attack on their gender, which is in turn an attack on their identity and dignity. We owe our fellow members of the human race at least that small amount of decency.