A Philosopher's Blog

Gender Mystery & Sports

Posted in Ethics, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2009
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Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.

Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.

One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.

This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.

Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.

Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course,  the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. One interesting thing about gender sorting is that it is presumably justified on the basis of fairness. As noted above, men tend to have an advantage over women in physical competition. For example, the best male runner will be much faster than the best female runner. Given this fact, having men and women compete against each other in such events would be unfair, because the men would tend to win because of their natural advantages. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.

One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports.  Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.

Some sports, like running, could sort people based on performance rather than gender. While this would tend to result in men being in the top slots, it would make for some interesting competition and would provide more in the way of gender equality. It would also be fair since people would be competing against those of comparable abilities.

Naturally, it could be argued that women would be being treated unfairly in such competition-after all, while they would compete in their performance grades, they would almost certainly not be winning the top places overall. This would create a nifty bit of irony: this most equal sort of competition would also seem to be rather “unfair” to women because they would have to compete against men.

Getting back to the original story that started the discussion, it should be noted that high testosterone levels can occur naturally in “normal” women. This would not be “cheating” anymore than a person who is born with superior lung capacity would be cheating.

It should also be noted that athletes can test for higher levels of testosterone because they have been using synthetic testosterone as a steroid. In this case, the ethics of the situation would be quite clear.

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2 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 26, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I have always wondered why men and women don’t compete against one another in chess. Any ideas?

  2. biomass2 said, on August 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    It seems that they do, but it happens infrequently at the world championship level. Polgar (first link below) is apparently one of the few. I’d guess that, in part, it’s not unlike the case of Jackie Robinson in baseball. Or the slow, slow move of blacks into leadership positions in professional football. Or the slow but steady rise of women in the business world.



    —-bottom page 2


    —-second paragraph

    I think the number and quality of competitors at the top level will increase as more women get drawn into the sport by the examples set by the small number of women who likely will succeed in it over time.

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