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Guest Blog On Women and Sports

Pat Connolly — Former Olympian and Coach to World and Olympic Record Holder Evelyn Ashford — on How to Determine if An Athlete Is Female?

In 1990 I had the good fortune of working with Pat on Coaching Evelyn, a YA nonfiction book about the relationship between athelete and coach. I thought Pat would be the ideal person to comment on the recent media storm about how to determine an athlete’s gender — an issue that might well come up in your classrooms or libraries. Here’s Pat’s guest post — and she will respond to questions or comments:

The worldwide headlines about Caster Semenya, the South African who won the 800 meter race at the World Championships this summer, are just the tip of a larger and more troubling iceberg. Every athletic contest, from high school meets to the Olympics, has events for men and events for women. Great – if we have an accepted definition of what makes someone a man or a woman. But we do not. Instead we have a tangle of attitudes, judgments, beliefs that are not only confusing but positively harmful.

            I was tall and muscular when I began to run track, which "nice girls" didn’t do in 1959.  My family and local journalists dolled me up with lipstick and ill fitting dresses and prayed that such rigorous exercise wouldn’t hurt my female organs.  I too, like Caster, ran the 800 meters on the world stage, at the 1960 Olympics, improving my time by 21 seconds before my 18th birthday. But back then men were competing disguised as women and I was displaced by some of them in my Olympic events.
    By 1967 women and their coaches were tired of competing against women who looked like, and in some cases were men. It seemed unfair. Olympic officials began sex testing and giving those who passed a gender identity card.   I like all the other women competitors had to submit to a gynecological exam which I called the "peek and poke test." It was embarrassing even though by that time I was a mother.  At the Olympic Games in 1968 they initiated cell testing to get a chromosome count to make certain all women had only xx chromosomes. It was too late, however,  to keep the contests fair because many athletes, especially from European and Soviet countries were already taking male hormones and anabolic steroids which gave women superpowers in all events. These cheaters and those who followed have been able to avoid detection in doping controls because the test are not set up to determine hormone levels which would be elevated or different from those of normal female athletes.  

            Indeed, in 2004, the International Olympic Commission decided that men who had undergone a sex change operation could compete as women, so long as two years had passed since the transformation. That meant we could no longer use the chromosome test. But then what standard could we use? I propose a simple rule: a woman is person who has been considered and reared as female from birth, and whose hormone levels are within the normal range of her own ethnic group. (It may well be that the “norm” for hormone levels varies in different ethnic groups. We know, for example, the age of menarche is older in northern Europe than in the tropics. This should not be hard to establish). We need to be fair to natural variation, but draw a line at volition – changing your body, or taking substances into your body, that blur the lines of male and female. Either that, or simply end the distinction between genders and let everyone in any form — whose hormone levels are naturally or artifically raised — compete for everything. We would no longer have women’s events, or scholarships, or Title IX — just a blur of bottles, supplements, and strange physical forms.