Some of the most appalling coverage of women and the Olympics has arisen around the subject of gender testing (only women are gender tested, of course, not men). Most media can’t seem to bring up South African runner Caster Semenya’s name without mentioning that she was gender tested three years ago and found to be female. The Vancouver Sun even said the test “still clouds her achievement.”
This is unfair, because gender testing is not like drug testing; the majority of people subjected to it grew up thinking they were female. Who, after all, keeps a DNA testing kit at home showing that they actually have a hidden Y chromosome?
The Atlantic Wire, in a story that at first seems more tabloid than it is, suggested that Semenya is now undergoing hormone treatment in order to bring down her testosterone levels, and that the treatment seems to have made her slower and more feminine looking. At first, the story seems to be invasive, with a photo comparison that points red arrows at possible new curves. But then it makes the subtle point that the gender testing rules may be a way of policing femininity, and patently unjust. Unlike the Miss America competition, athletes shouldn’t have to look a certain way in order to compete. They should be able to focus on training and skill-building, not whether their bodies would look great in an evening gown.
Semenya is “far from the first competitor to face this kind of scrutiny,” said the Daily Beast. Many female athletes have been accused of being secret men, from Martina Navratilova to Serena Williams. The most insightful article on gender testing came from The Los Angeles Times, which traces the history. “Once it’s agreed that men and women should compete separately, how should officials divide them up?” the story asks. “It’s not a rhetorical question. Though most people fall neatly into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories, some do not. The fact that there are people with physical or genetic traits of both sexes prompted the IOC to rethink its gender test.” The test, which now measures levels of testosterone in a woman’s blood, is still controversial—it’s not clear that elevated levels of testosterone give all women an advantage. But the point of testing is supposedly to even the playing field, and this test is the best way officials know of to do that.
For women, though, gender testing is an additional hurdle they have to clear and men do not. Women may be are everywhere in the coverage of these Olympic Games, but they will be real winners only when the subject of their gender is less of a story than their achievements in the competitions.