Friday, August 19, 2016

The Olympics and Femininity Certificates

We have all been enthralled watching the Olympics of the last week.  The athleticism, concentration and sheer endurance is amazing.  The physical art of the gymnast coupled with what seem to be an ability to defy gravity is like watching art in motion.  It does not go unnoticed especially among us that there are stick gender boundaries. However defining these is becoming more and more of an issue.  

According to an article written by Christie Aschwanden, at stake is a delicate balance between protecting the integrity of women’s sport while also honoring the rights of intersex and transgender athletes, who already face discrimination and marginalization.

Here is an interesting historical account:

In 1938, the gender of an athlete came into dispute. The German high-jumper Dora Ratjen, a former fourth-place Olympian who won a gold medal at the European Athletics Championship, was suddenly identified as male, prompting Germany to quietly return the medal. When Ratjen’s case became public years later — he claimed that the Nazis pressured him to pose as a woman for three years — it validated the growing anxiety about gender fraud in athletics.... Dora lived as a female until two years after the 1936 Olympics, when police were alerted to a train traveler in women’s clothes who looked suspiciously masculine. With relief so apparent that the police noted it in their report, Ratjen told them that despite his parents’ claims, he had long suspected he was male. A police physician examined him and agreed, but reported that Ratjen’s genitals were atypical. Ratjen changed his first name from Dora to Heinrich. But those details were unknown until recently, so for decades, Ratjen was considered a gender cheat. 

By the mid-1940's, international sports administrators began requiring female competitors to bring medical “femininity certificates” to verify their sex. That has been extended and women’s eligibility has to be medicalized, systematized, and standardized. Athletes in the past had to prove their gender, by regulations known as a “naked parade,” chromosomal testing and currently testing of hormones levels, notably testosterone. 

The Canadian skier's ''Femininity Card'' 

So what is happening this year: CASTER SEMENYA, a runner from South Africa has sparked a huge debate about who should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. The middle-distance runner simply went about her business and won the semi-final event.   The Final event is Scheduled for Saturday August 20th as the debate about hyperandrogenism raged around her. The 25-year-old runner stormed through the first heats of the women’s 800m and is expected to win gold.  But many are questioning whether she should be allowed to run as a woman. Semenya has hyperandrogenism, a condition that means her testosterone levels are three times that of the average woman, giving her a broad, muscular frame and male look. So is she female?

Back home in South Africa, Semenya's defenders are using social media to show their support. The hashtag "HandsOffCaster" has been trending as her race approaches.  (read more: The Sensitive Question Of Intersex Athletes)

So the Olympics, the single biggest stage for female athletes, is back in the business of deciding who is a woman. The world around has changed, but the heart of the process has not.  

So why can not the world accept that we are what we say we are!

Stay tuned - I am sure the controversy is not finished. 

South Africa's Caster Semenya competes in the women's 800 meters in Rome


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