“I keep telling you guys my aim is to become a legend,” said Usain Bolt, after smashing the world 200 metres record and becoming the first man to hold the 100 and 200 metres sprints in both the Olympics and the Athletics World Championships.
Competition at international sporting events is fierce and the pursuit of an edge, sometimes measured in hundredths of a second, leads some to cheat. Steroid abuse aims to increase the strength, speed and endurance of what is natural. But the androgens created by the body are not set to any standard. Some people do genuinely produce more than others. Figuring out what is normal and what is not is difficult.
And, sometimes, something else is going on.
In 1966, Erika Schinegger was the world champion women’s downhill skier. The young Austrian was preparing for the Olympics in 1968 and a hoped-for gold medal. However, 1968 was no ordinary year.
The politics of the time saw Communist countries forcing significant anabolic steroids on their athletes in an effort to ensure victory. The concern was not just for the future of competitive sport, but also for the health of the athletes. The East Germans, in particular, were serial abusers. Manfred Ewald, architect of their doping scheme, was convicted and jailed in 2000 for his part in this.
Besides doping, though, many male athletes were entered as women to ensure an additional level of success.
Schinegger was one of the first Olympic athletes to undergo a gender test. She discovered, to her shock, that she was actually male. She was disqualified and had a sex-change, becoming Erik, a man.
Gender is not as simple as visually inspecting a person and deciding whether they are male or female. Much of what we are comes down to the expression of our genes.
For hardened racists, it can be somewhat troubling and disconcerting to discover that we are both all and no races. That a person who may live in Europe and whose family has been there for generations has components of their genetic code that prove incontrovertibly that they have African ancestors.
This doesn’t matter unless you enter a situation where hard rules are enforced, like South Africa’s racial rules of the Apartheid era. The same is also true of gender. It doesn’t much matter unless you wish to have children, or to compete in sporting events.
During the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm, the female egg has its X chromosome complemented by either of an X or Y chromosome from the sperm. This results in a typical XX or XY paring. However, in one pairing per thousand, something slightly different happens.
According to the Textbook of Sexual Medicine, “During the first weeks of development, genetic male and female fetuses are anatomically indistinguishable, with primitive gonads beginning to develop during approximately the sixth week of gestation. The gonads, in a bipotential state, may develop into either testes (the male gonads) or ovaries (the female gonads) depending on consequent events.”
The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of virilizing hormones. This results in genetic females (XX chromosomes) producing male characteristics as they become extremely sensitive to male hormones. Conversely, a genetic male (XY) could become insensitive to androgens, resulting in female characteristics. And there are a wide range of other variations.
Milton Diamond, a prominent gender researcher, says this, “Foremost, we advocate use of the terms “typical,” “usual,” or “most frequent” where it is more common to use the term “normal.” When possible avoid expressions like maldeveloped or undeveloped, errors of development, defective genitals, abnormal, or mistakes of nature. Emphasize that all of these conditions are biologically understandable while they are statistically uncommon.”
In other words, while some of the impacts of these gender events can be disturbing for some, and statistically rare, they are all normal aspects of our genetic makeup. Far from making race and gender simpler, modern genetics has made pure categorisation almost impossible.
All of this may be scant support for Caster Semenya as she undergoes the public scrutiny which has followed her victory in the 800 metres at the World Championships.
In every-day life, it certainly doesn’t matter what gender she may be.
In the brutal world of competitive athletics, it is important. This has nothing to do with the politics of gender or race, but it does with the arbitrary limitations required of competitive sport.
Life is full of arbitrary definitions: from the legal voting age, to official retirement, to age categories for sporting events. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is enforcing its rules no less arbitrarily, but those happen to be the known rules for international competition.
The debate about racism or sexism is pitched as being about accepting predefined stereotypes and labels, not about chucking them in the bin. Race is an arbitrary measure of human difference. So is gender. Yet we don’t throw away the labels, we just force people into them and then demand tolerance of people because of those labels. Isn’t that discrimination as well?
The real hope of this current row over the gender of one person is that maybe we can start accepting people for what they are, rather than in stereotyping people and then choosing whether to accept or reject those stereotypes.
[Cross-posted from Africagenome.com]