Thai boxer Usanakorn Kokietgym (above, right) was subjected to a barrage of questions about her biological sex.

Thai boxer Usanakorn Kokietgym (above, right) was subjected to a barrage of questions about her biological sex.

An uncomfortable incident occurred over the weekend in the professional world of female championship boxing. After being defeated by Australian boxer Susan Ramadan in a world title fight, her opponent Usanakorn Kokietgym was subjected to a barrage of questions about her biological sex, with Ramadan’s trainer Barry Michael accusing the Thai bantamweight of “punching harder than most blokes [he knows]”.

The discomfort isn’t in regards to whether or not Usanakorn may have duped the professional boxing world; rather, it’s due to yet another athlete being forced to defend her femaleness because a) she has ‘unnaturally’ occurring levels of testosterone that lead to b) her performance being so good that it seems impossible she could be a woman.

It’s an accusation not unfamiliar to some female athletes. Three years ago, runner Caster Semenya was thrust into the international spotlight following her performance at the World Athletics Championships held in Berlin. Semenya unceremoniously blitzed her competition in the 800m by a full two seconds with a total time of 1:55.45. 

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But instead of reveling in her win, Semenya was forced to endure the public humiliation of having her sex and gender used as fodder for international gossip. Fellow runners Elisa Cusma Piccione and Mariya Savinova dismissed the 18 year old South African, and claimed ‘his’ victory was unfair. (Cusma had placed sixth in the race – she’s yet to reveal what it was that disadvantaged her against the other four runners who placed ahead of her).

Her peers’ feelings towards her weren’t helped by the revelation – a mere moments before her gold medal winning 800m event – that the IAAF was requesting sex testing of Semenya following a marked improvement in times at the African Junior Championships. Perhaps if that information hadn’t been leaked, Semenya could have been spared some of the more vitriolic attacks on her gender that were to begin almost immediately following her victory, and would go on to demonstrate the particularly virulent strain of sexism, racism and transphobia found in the competitive field of sports.

As it was, it took three months for the IAAF and Semenya to reach an agreement that allowed the runner to retain her title and prize money, and a further six months before she was cleared to compete ‘as a woman’ again. Like Usanakorn, testing had revealed that Semenya’s body produced three times the level of naturally occurring testosterone typically found in a female. Although the results of her sex tests were never made public, The Daily Telegraph chose to publish unconfirmed reports that Semenya had undescended testes in place of a womb and uterus. She said herself of the tests, “I see it all as a joke, it doesn't upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I'm proud of myself.”

Caster Semenya ... subjected to sex test after her 800m win in 2009.

Caster Semenya ... subjected to sex test after her 800m win in 2009.

Sex and gender testing for women have always been features of the athletic community; indeed, up until the late 1960s, women were forced to parade naked in front of a panel of ‘experts’ to prove their femaleness (something we accept now as not only a blatant violation but also scientifically unsound). The practice was later eschewed for chromosomal testing and then abandoned altogether in the 90s due to its unreliability.

In light of this crude burden of proof it’s almost certain that history is full of athletes who, unbeknownst to them, fell somewhere in between the accepted binary of male and female biological sex. And now that we have the technology to determine that sex, we’ve become rigid about insisting the binary be upheld in competitive sport – sometimes with tragic consequences. In a foreshadowing of the furore surrounding Semenya’s 2009 win, Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of a silver medal won at the 2006 Asian Games because a sex verification test indicated she ‘did not have the sexual characteristics of a woman’. The results devastated Soundarajan (who was almost certainly not aware that she was intersex); she was banned from competing and later survived a suicide attempt. She now runs a training college for runners in her province.

The IAAF have since instituted a policy that dictates women with naturally occurring testosterone deemed ‘too high’ will be required to either surgically or medically reduce their body’s production to a ‘normal’ level.

On the surface, it seems reasonable because the idea of an unfair advantage is anathema to sports. But the policy has been criticized by a panel of scientists, sports experts and bioethicists at the Stanford Centre for Biomedical Research, with the panel challenging the belief that higher testosterone levels naturally lead to a greater sporting advantage (for in amongst the flaming pitchforks being waved at Usanakorn and her increased levels of testosterone, it should be remembered that they didn’t help her beat Ramadan). In fact, the panel calls it ‘just one element in a complex neuroendocrine feedback system’. Columbia University Associate Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young and Stanford University senior research scholar Katrina Karkazia recently argued that women with no discernable tissue response to testosterone are actually overrepresented among elite athletes: “Testosterone is not the master molecule of athleticism…As counterintuitive as it might seem, there is no evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones.”

Others have cited the policy as yet another way to police the gender of female athletes, the most physically robust of whom will sit outside of acceptable social ideas of conventional female gentility and attractiveness. Reports claim spectators abused Usanakorn throughout her fight against Ramadan, calling repeatedly for a ‘gender check’ and heckling her. Meanwhile, Semenya – who has reportedly undergone the steps required in order to compete at London 2012 – has already been praised in some media quarters for sporting a more ‘feminine’ look.

The circumstances of Usanakorn, Semenya and Soundarajan raise interesting questions about the role of sex and gender in sport. On the one hand, they bring to mind the notion of a level playing field that is often held up as being part and parcel of competitive sport. The reason we don’t (mostly) pit men and women against each other at the Olympics is because we routinely accept that men possess a strength that gives them an unfair advantage. But leaving aside for a moment categories such as diving, gymnastics, shooting, archery, synchronized swimming, fencing, equestrian, sailing and the list that literally goes on, on the other hand what we’re saying here is that we accept a basic premise in which men and women can’t compete together – because men are just better.

And look, this is arguably true when it comes to a sport like running. The best male runners will almost certainly be faster than the best female ones, and it would be folly to pit them against each other and expect it to be equal. In light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that competitors and spectators are eager to remove any question of biological ambiguity in order to ensure a ‘fair fight’.

But that premise doesn’t take into account the various factors within those broad biological sex categories that might contribute to an athlete’s skill or ability. As Sam Murphy argues in a recent Guardian piece, “Sport is anything but a level playing field. No matter how much you want to be an athlete, you simply don't have a chance if you didn't choose the right parents. Right from the starting blocks, those athletes with the "best" genes – the right type of muscle fibres, the highest VO2 maxes, the longest limbs – are at an advantage. That's just the way it is.”

Without even considering how alienating and transphobic these policies (the IOC’s 2004 Stockholm Consensus decreed transgendered athletes could compete as their chosen gender, provided they were post-operative transsexuals – a status both expensive and difficult for female-born men to achieve), it also unfairly weights biological sex as a contributor to athletic success. The IAAF may have instituted what it believes to be fair policy in regards to testosterone – but what about economics? Would anyone seriously argue that athletes born into privilege need to train on a budget because some of their competition was raised in South African villages or Indian slums?

Perhaps the most glaring disparity in our obsessive need to qualify femaleness is how little it compares to our appreciation for the extreme athletic ability of men at the top of their game. Caster Semenya’s ability to run well is considered so unusual that she – and other women like her – are forced to prove their femaleness in order to compete. If they are too good, it is assumed that they must be operating on a level higher than that normally reserved for women. Worse, that supposed duplicity is touted as cheating, bringing not just the athlete’s sex into question but also their integrity.

But provided men pass testing for drug use, their athletic ability is never called into question. Instead, it’s praised as beautiful, extraordinary…God-like. And we allow them to bear this mantel, considering them to have earned it. I have yet to hear of a genetic test that establishes whether or not athletes like Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis or Asafa Powell are human and not in fact Olympian Gods descended from the Mount for a change of scenery.

In order to deserve their athletic success, women have to prove they’re not men. But men never need prove they’re not Gods – because when it comes to athletic prowess, we simply accept that they might be, and bask in the glory that lies therein.