Sexual Orientation & The Olympics
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THE GENDER TRAP
By Emine Saner
July 30, 2008
For more than a year, officials in Beijing have been designing a special
laboratory to determine the sex of any athletes taking part in this year's
Olympic games. "Suspected athletes will be evaluated from their external
appearances by experts and undergo blood tests to examine their sex
hormones, genes and chromosomes for sex determination," says Professor Tian
Qinjie. The tests will not be conducted on every female athlete, but will be
required if serious doubts have been raised about an individual competitor
-- invariably one competing in the women's events. "The aim is to protect
fairness at the games while also protecting the rights of people with
abnormal sexual development," he says.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced sex testing in 1968 at
the Olympic games in Mexico City, after the masculine appearance of some
competitors, many pumped up by anabolic steroids, had started to raise
questions about the gender of athletes in female events. Unsurprisingly,
gender-determination tests were seen as degrading, with female competitors
having to submit to humiliating and invasive physical examinations by a
series of doctors. Later, the IOC decided to use a supposedly more
sophisticated genetic test, based on chromosomes. Women usually have two X
chromosomes; men an X and a Y chromosome. So, according to the rules of the
test, only those athletes with two X chromosomes could be classed as women.
However, many geneticists criticised the tests, saying that sex is not as
simple as X and Y chromosomes and is not always simple to ascertain.
It is thought that around one in 1,000 babies are born with an "intersex"
condition, the general term for people with chromosomal abnormalities. It
may be physically obvious from birth -- babies may have ambiguous
reproductive organs, for instance -- or it may remain unknown to people all
their lives. At the Atlanta games in 1996, eight female athletes failed sex
tests but were all cleared on appeal; seven were found to have an "intersex"
condition. As a result, by the time of the Sydney games in 2000, the IOC had
abolished universal sex testing but, as will happen in Beijing, some women
still had to prove they really were women.
Transsexuals, who have had a sex change from male to female, can compete in
women's events in the Olympics, as long they wait two years after the
The following are some of the more famous instances when female athletes
were caught in the gender trap.
One of the most tragic recent cases is yet to reach a conclusion.
Soundarajan, a 27-year-old Indian athlete, has had to endure public
humiliation after she was stripped of her silver medal for the 800m at the
Asian games in 2006. Soundarajan, who has lived her entire life as a woman,
failed a gender test, which usually includes examinations by a
gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and a genetic expert. The
precise results of the test have not been made public, but it has been
reported that the likely cause is a condition called Androgen insensitivity
syndrome, where a person has the physical characteristics of a woman but
whose genetic make-up includes a male chromosome. The Canadian cyclist
Kristen Worley, who has undergone sex reassignment surgery, is one of a
number of people who are calling for Soundarajan's medal to be reinstated.
"It should never have been handled in such a gross manner, amounting to
public humiliation because of their ignorance of her condition," Worley has
said. "The Olympic movement has been dealing with intersex people since the
1930s. You'd think they would have got the hang of it by now." The
humiliation and prospect that her career may be over has taken its toll on
Soundarajan. In September, Indian newspapers reported that she had survived
a suicide attempt.
Born with both male and female sex organs, the Brazilian judo player had
surgery in the mid-90s so that she could live and compete as a woman.
According to the IOC, this made her eligible to participate in the games and
she competed in Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens in 2004. In Sydney, she
beat the Australian judoka Natalie Jenkins, who raised the issue of Silva's
gender in a press conference, constantly referring to her as "he". "I have
never fought that one before. My plan was not to grip with her, she's --
he's -- very strong," she said. Silva gave a mouth swab to officials, which
proved she was female.
In the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Adolf Hitler wanted to show the world
the supremacy of the Aryan race -- and he needed German athletes to win.
Ratjen, notable for her deep voice and her refusal to share the shower room
with the other female athletes, was Germany's entry for the women's high
jump. She came fourth. Britain's competitor, Dorothy Tyler, who won a silver
medal, remembers her. "I had competed against Dora and I knew she was a
man," she says. "You could tell by the voice and the build. But 'she' was
far from the only athlete. You could tell because they would always go into
the toilet to get changed. We'd go and stand on the seat of the next-door
cubicle or look under the door to see if we could catch them." Tyler held
the world record for the high jump, but when officials wrote to her telling
her that Ratjen had broken it, she wrote back. "I said: 'She's not a woman,
she's a man,'" she says. "They did some research and found 'her' serving as
a waiter called Hermann, so I got my world record back again." Dora, who had
been born Hermann Ratjen, had in fact been a member of the Hitler Youth and
said that the Nazis had forced him to enter as a woman.
At one point, Walsh, a Polish-American sprinter, was the fastest woman in
the world. Born Stanislawa Walasiewicz in Poland in 1911, she grew up in the
United States, although she represented her country of birth at the 1932 and
1936 Olympics, winning gold and silver medals respectively for the 100m
sprint. During her long career, she set more than 100 national and world
records and was inducted into the American Track and Field Hall of Fame in
1975. She lived her entire life as a woman, and even had a short-lived
marriage to an American man. In 1980, Walsh was killed by mistake during an
armed robbery at a shopping mall in Cleveland, Ohio. The postmortem revealed
she had male genitalia, although this did not prove that she was a man as
she was also found to have both male and female chromosomes, a genetic
condition known as mosaicism.
It is believed that as many as 10,000 East German athletes were caught up in
a nightmarish state-sponsored attempt to build a race of superhuman
communist sports heroes and force-fed cocktails of steroids and other
performance-enhancing drugs. One of them was Heidi Krieger, a shot putter.
When she was 16, her coach put her on steroids and contraceptive pills and
she gained weight, built muscle and started to develop body hair. By 1986,
aged 20, she was European champion. Her overdeveloped physique had put a
huge amount of pressure on her frame, causing medical problems, while the
drugs had caused mood swings, depression and resulted in at least one
suicide attempt. By the mid-90s, Krieger underwent gender reassignment
surgery and changed her name to Andreas. She had already been confused about
her gender, but felt that the drugs had pushed her over the edge. "I didn't
have control," Krieger told the New York Times four years ago. "I couldn't
find out for myself which sex I wanted to be." At the trial in 2000 of
Manfred Ewald, the East German sports official and architect of the doping
regime, Krieger said "They just used me like a machine".
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Published by David Sunfellow
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