Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fixing advantage by fixing bodies?

If we thought the international sports community had learned something about gender and sex, biology, identity and athleticism after the debacle caused by the International Association of Athletics Federations in its process of “gender verification” in the case of South African runner Caster Semenya, an April New York Times op-ed about these issues has shocked the naiveté right out of us. I would have liked to believe that the humiliation Semenya underwent when members of the international track and field community questioned her sex thus triggering physical, medical, and psychological examinations would become an anomaly. Based on the information presented by co-authors Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, it was not. The difference: the process of accusing and testing Semenya was very public; the process of testing and “fixing” the bodies of athletes who do not conform to the IAAF’s new hormone level policies (also adopted by the IOC and FIFA) have been quite hidden. While the Semenya case was a clear violation of her privacy, the implementation of the new eligibility rules based on the level of testosterone individual women produce seems less about privacy and more about keeping secrets.
Karkazis and Jordan-Young, drawing on a 2013 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism article about the case of four athletes who did not meet the new eligibility rules, are exposing some of the little known facts about their application. Some sport governing bodies, we don’t know which ones, are testing “suspect” female athletes to determine their testosterone levels. If it is too high, in other words it exceeds the acceptable level for females according to the organization’s rules, they are referred to doctors for more tests and “therapies.”
There are three issues I want to raise here that stem from those last two sentences. First, quick background: the article in the medical journal is based on four cases of young (18-21) female athletes, all from developing countries, who were sent to doctors in France when their testosterone serum levels were deemed outside the normal female range.
I will start with the most shocking piece of the article. The therapies that, once completed, allowed these women back into competition included removing internal testes and reducing their clitorises; procedures that are both medically invasive and, according to the doctors who performed them, unnecessary. Here is the text from the June 1, 2013 volume of Clinical Endocrinology:
Although leaving male gonads in [these] patients carries no health risk, each athlete was informed that gonadectomy would most likely decrease their performance level but allow them to continue elite sport in the female category. We thus proposed a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy, to which the 4 athletes agreed after informed consent on surgical and medical procedures. Sports authorities then allowed them to continue competing in the female category 1 year after gonadectomy.
The authors do not delve into the moral or ethical implications of this treatment. Rather their premise is it is medically interesting that these women made it to adulthood without diagnosis, had family genetic histories which include other sexual differentiation disorders, and that these and other factors point to the need for screening of all young athletes “with primary amenorrhea and hyperandrogenism to protect their health and privacy and ensure fairness in female competition.”
When African and Middle Eastern people engage in genital surgeries on women, westerners call it mutilation. When French doctors do it, it gets called therapy completed in the name of competitive fairness.
Second, the idea that there is a “normal” is highly problematic. A study from the same journal, published just a year before this one, found that testosterone levels in elite athletes do not always predict success. The study of nearly 700 male and female elite athletes found overlap in the ranges of testosterone, including 16.5% of men who had levels in the “female range.” This finding reinforces previous arguments in the debate over sex testing, fairness, and advantages. Why is advantage only being measured by hormones? Swimmer Michael Phelps’s size 14 feet and hyperflexibility fall outside the range of normal. Should doctors shave down his toes and shorten his ankle tendons? Sport governance bodies are not considering the many biological and cultural conditions that confer or decrease in individual athletes. They have zeroed in on hormones.
Finally, the concept of a suspect female athlete is, well, highly suspect. Though some sporting bodies are starting screening on every competitor in female categories, the possibility of discrimination based on race, performed femininity, nationalism, and class remains too high. Who is being brought in for testing and “therapy” is about more than countries with poor health care systems, as the French doctors suggest.
How does it come to pass that sport governing organizations, whose very existence is predicated on moving, achieving, striving bodies, know so little about bodies? I would suggest that it is ironic, but I fear that word might misrepresent the gravity of the present situation. What it appears to be is that these organizations are considering and assessing the politics and the policies more intently than the interests of the athletes whom they allegedly serve. And they are using the medical industry to help them do so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

You can literally see the inequality

Last weekish I wrote about my astonishment that there isn't a 4-women bobsled event and how this speaks to the inequality that still remains in the Olympics in spite of visible and highly touted progress (i.e., the much-belated inclusion of women's ski jumping) because of the lack of equality in the events themselves. Even women's ski jumping has only one event while the men have two (two different sized hills).
Want to see the inequality? Not in a pie graph or nifty infographic (though those are fun); but here in the medal ceremony for the team luge event. This was a new event this year (I think--I had never seen it before) in which a team comprised of a female sledder, a male sledder, and a doubles team relay down the course. When one entity crosses the line, he/she hits a paddle which releases the gate at the top for the next entity.
Each team has 1 woman and three men. Why? Because female lugers only have one event--the singles. Just like the female bobsledders only have the 2-person race. Within sports in where the inequality lies.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Why adjectives matter: The case of women's sports

I ended yesterday's post with a line about female Olympians, who are the minority gender at the Winter Olympics, receiving a greater piece of spotlight. The caveat (in addition to the fact that it actually might not be true if one does a thorough content analysis of media coverage) is that the spotlight they are under highlights their sexuality, or rather their performance of their (hetero)sexuality/femininity.
Obviously in most other arenas (pun intended) the spotlight on female athletes and women's sports is pretty dim. So much so that the media sometimes forgets altogether that women's sports exist. Because when "women" gets placed in front of "sports" it has some kind of cloaking effect, rendering women's sports invisible to the world.
This phenomenon was on display last year when Andy Murray won Wimbledon, the first Brit to do so since Fred Perry in the 1930s. Except for Dorothy Round Little, Angela Mortimer Barrett, Ann Haydon-Jones, and Virgina Wade (the last, who should get additional props for winning it with just one last name). Some media outlets were able to point out the discrimination within 24 hours, which I guess is a marker of this thing we call "progress."
But the phenomenon emerged again mere days ago when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl--the first Seattle team to win a title since the Supersonics won the NBA championship in 1979. That news had Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson more than a little confused (she was pissed!) because she remembers being on two championship-winning teams in 2004 and 2010.
I haven't yet seen any corrections to the misinformation.

Monday, February 03, 2014

My former dreams are shattered

Many women's sports advocates have cheered the greater gender parity that we will see in Sochi next week. Mostly this is over the long-fought and quite visible battle female ski jumpers around the world engaged in over their inclusion in the winter games. (There's even a movie about it--which I haven't seen but would like to get a hold of.)
But of course all is not equal, it's not even equitable. I was pretty sure, and then this article confirmed, that there would be no Nordic combined (jumping and cross-country skiing) event for women.
But, as with the summer games, it's more than just sports, it's events within sports that provide more opportunities for male Olympic athletes than female ones.
The most surprising to me was bobsled. In college, I remember the announcement that women's bobsled would be included in the 2002 games. My three female housemates and I were quite excited that we theoretically (and in theory only) had the possibility of being the first US 4-woman bobsled team. I guess technically we still do because there is no 4-person women's bobsled, only 2-person. I have seen no compelling reason for its absence.
This absence is especially salient this year given the controversy over which American women would go to Sochi. Track star Lolo Jones, who took up bobsled in 2012 after a disappointing and also controversial showing at the London Games, made the team despite her lack of experience. Some in bobsled circles suggest that she is there for publicity with other conspiracy-minded people suggesting that NBC needs a female media darling given Lindsey Vonn's injury-induced absence from the games.
So though there is no parity yet in terms of opportunities, female athletes may have more than their fair share of the spotlight.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Should you watch the Olympics?

Yesterday's NYT had an article about whether gay people were planning on "boycotting" the Sochi Olympics by not watching the games when they begin next week. Some of those interviewed, who noted that they were indeed fans of the Olympics, said they didn't feel right watching feeling that doing so would be a sign of support for Russia's anti-gay policies and sentiments.
But, as Hilary Rosen of CNN and others have noted, not watching the Olympics will not have a direct effect on Russia. Russia will feel the effects, however, if fewer people attend the events and spend money in the country, as has been predicted.
Russia has the games. Despite calls from different sectors to take the games away from Russia (rather unrealistic but at least someone said it), they will occur in the country. The goal, going forward, should be to make sure that such a problematic choice does not happen again.
How to go about this?
Well if we boycott Olympic sponsors like McDonalds and Coke (which we should probably be doing for a plethora of additional reasons anyway) maybe that will send a message. I generally abhor corporate influence, but this might be the time and the place, and it's not as if the bid process has been pure as the driven snow anyway.
Which leads to a second suggestion, how about some transparency about the bid process? How about criteria that include a country's record on social issues? How about countries submitting plans that ensure impoverished peoples are not displaced, or animals killed, or indigenous lands desecrated? And I realize this would probably remove the US from the list of contenders; and I'm ok with that.
Because I really want to watch the Olympics. Even knowing all the wrongs that are committed in the name of these games, which are clearly in violation of the Olympic Movement's own mission statement, I continue to watch. I wish I could be more ideologically consistent; that it wasn't so easy to erase the offenses. Maybe the IOC and the corporate culture that surrounds it is too difficult to change, but we should try.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Caitlin Cahow is part of the US delegation to Sochi

I just thought I would put that out there. Many of the articles I have read and radio reports I have heard about this "protest delegation" state that President Obama is choosing to send openly out athletes including Billie Jean King and Brian Boitano. Cahow's name is frequently left off the list despite the fact that she has been an activist for gay rights and inclusionary practices and attitudes in sport. Boitano came out publicly a few weeks ago. Cahow, a hockey player, has been out and part of this conversation for years.
I imagine the rationale some might offer to the erasure of Cahow in the media is because she is not nearly as well-known among the American public as King and Boitano. And this would be true. But this "truth" speaks to the ongoing issues with the visibility of women's sports, especially sports that are viewed as more masculine, like ice hockey. But Cahow's resume is impressive.
When media reports of the delegation mention King and Boitano and leave Cahow out, the invisibility of women's contact sports is perpetuated. Cahow is not a household name in the same way as the other members of the delegation, but not mentioning her takes away the opportunity for people to learn more about her and about women's ice hockey. Unlike other winter sports, women's ice hockey is fairly accessible in the inter-Olympic years. Spectators can access Olympians very easily (and cheaply given the low cost of admission to women's intercollegiate games) playing at the college level every winter.
The erasure of Cahow from the international stage provides an interesting moment for us to consider how perceptions of gender and sexuality affect the popularity of women's sports and how media are implicated in this beyond just minutes of news coverage or lines of print.