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On Women and Intersex in Sport

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So I don’t really have strong opinions on the whole controversy over women’s sports at the elite level…mostly because I have a really hard time following all the logic. For me the biggest problem seems to be that we have two categories, men’s and women’s, and there are those who are arguing that they’re actually nearly plastic catchalls…which then suggests to me we shouldn’t have two categories in the first place in competition at the highest levels.

With that in mind, D. J. Grothe points me to this prescient interview from a few months back, Hyperandrogenism and women vs women vs men in sport: A Q&A with Joanna Harper. Joanna Harper is a transwoman who is (was?) also a competitive racer and a sports scientist. This portion is where the facts stand:

I would also like to relate a two-part epiphany that I had after my transition. In 2005, nine months after starting HRT, I was running 12% slower than I had run with male T levels; women run 10-12% slower than men over a wide range of distances. In 2006 I met another trans woman runner and the she had the same experience. I later discovered that, if aging is factored in, this 10-12% loss of speed is standard among trans women endurance athletes. The realization that one can take a male distance runner, make that runner hormonally female, and wind up with a female distance runner of the same relative capability was life changing for me.

As they say, “read the whole thing.” It’s long, and detailed, and doesn’t offer easy answers. Ultimately the reality is that no “solution” is going to be fair to world-class athletes. But, it’s probably important to remind ourselves that it is also unfair to those of us without the genetics of world-class athletes, and we seem to be OK with that.

Compare and contrast with this piece from Let Caster Run! We Should Celebrate Semenya’s Extraordinary Talent. The title really captures the reality that it was pretty obvious that the author was going to come down on one side, and would make a lawyerly case. Rather disappointed with Nate Silver’s shop.

• Category: Science • Tags: Science, Sports 

23 Comments to "On Women and Intersex in Sport"

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  1. the answer is obvious: the Trans-Olympics! like gender neutral bathrooms, each competitor will compete against themselves in their own “stall” regardless of their gender identity or expression. Medals will not be given as they are exclusive to able bodied athletes and those with necks. Finger snapping or tapping will be used to congratulate each winner (which will be everyone.)
    Leftist activists will soon have more than just Danica Patrick to idolize.

    • Agree: BB753
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  2. What happens when a trans woman athlete reduces her HRT dose? Would that constitute “doping”?

    It will be interesting to see what happens when the current PC orthodoxy that a man becomes a woman simply by stating that he is, becomes enshrined in law (which is the inevitable outcome of World War T).

    The Olympics are shielded to some extent by being international, but in tennis, Wimbledon, the US, Australian and French Open Ladies events will soon become the exclusive preserve of trans women.

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  3. says:
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    which then suggests to me we shouldn’t have two categories in the first place in competition at the highest levels.

    We don’t. At the highest levels, we have one category, with no one being tested or disqualified from the category for being the wrong sex or having various physical disabilities. If you can compete, you may.

  4. I was reading about this and it seems the British athlete, Ms. Sharp, who made the comments about Caster came in at #6.

    It could also have a racial dimension because she did mention that the other athletes who agreed with her were Canada and Poland (who I assume were white).

    I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Caster simply because I think *naturally* intersex individuals already have it quite difficult so why shouldn’t they partake.

    A solution could be do what boxing does and instead of segregating by weight class do so by testosterone levels?

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  5. I think the silver (and possibly the even the bronze!) medalist’s T-levels are in doubt, too, but there’s no way to test them because the rules now allow anyone regardless of testosterone. It’s not even totally clear if Ms Sharp’s comments were only about Semenya, or the issue in general.

    My inclination is that the decision was wrong, based on the following:

    - women’s sports are affirmative action for women, and they weren’t created for intersex individuals, whose average sports talents are probably closer to men anyway

    - it’s a ridiculous argument that there’s no evidence that testosterone provided great advantages

    - Semenya could have her balls removed. That’s what she’d do if she wanted to live a normal life. People desperately want to be normal. I’d want to fall into a normal category, either woman or man.

    - I don’t like the argument that since they are already having it bad, they should have the advantages. By saying that, we are being generous at the expense of others – the normal female athletes. Their misfortune wasn’t caused by the women athletes, so why should they pay the price to compensate them?

    Otherwise, I agree it’s not good for Semenya, and we shouldn’t be mocking her etc. for her misfortune. The whole situation – including her testacles and the recent decision – is not her fault.

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  6. No edit function and a few typos, like testacles instead of testicles.

  7. What happens when a trans woman athlete reduces her HRT dose?

    From my understanding, transwomen must have tested under a certain testosterone level for at least 12 consecutive months prior to the event. So when a transwoman reduces her HRT dose, she is banned from competing.. for at least 12 months.

  8. This is an interesting conundrum. There ARE intersex individuals who are born that way, but at the same time most people are rather distinctly male or female. And males are stronger than females (and that is not just culture or training or whatever, it is due to very clear biological differences between the sexes). If Allah had decided to make the sexes COMPLETELY binary, we wouldnt be discussing this. If there was a continuous spectrum with no big poles of male and female (i.e. a bell shaped curve, with most people in the middle) we wouldnt be discussing this. But as it happens, we have a species with two rather distinct sexes, but with occasional exceptional cases in between (and a small, but apparently growing, number of cases of desire to move from one pole to the other). The intersex cases (and the artificially treated cases of sex-change) exist and complicate the discussion. Not so much in practice (yet) because natural intersex cases are rare, and most will not be runners or swimmers at olympic level in any case, but occasional athletes identified as females but with unusual levels of male hormones will come up and will cause controversies. We can probably live with that, even with no clear or consistent policy in place. But if trans-females become more common, the issue may become more real…

  9. Caster appears to be an XY male with (I assume) undescended testicles.

    Why don’t they just test for XX or XY chromosome pairs? If you’re XX, go thru the women’s door, whether you’re Serena Williams or Emma Watson. If you’re XY, you’re using the men’s room.

    And btw, XXY’s are physiologically incapable of competing at elite levels.

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  10. Why don’t they just test for XX or XY chromosome pairs?

    Because of genetic conditions that block the extra testosterone from the Y chromosome from having an effect, like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which can result in an XY person being essentially female (and always decidedly “non-male”) physiologically…. ie “intersex”.

    In 2011 the IOC enforced a maximum testosterone level for people with these conditions competing as women, but this was lifted after an appeal in 2015 and the IAAF has been given until 2017 to prove that levels above this give intersex competitors an advantage. Caster certainly underperformed while taking hormone treatment between 2011 and now, so quite possibly they will be able to make a strong case if the same scenario is found in other intersex athletes.

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  11. to prove that levels above this give intersex competitors an advantage

    If that wasn’t proven, why the ban of anabolic steroids? They are essentially one form or other of artificial testosterone.

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  12. I think that the issue should be decided by former female competitors.

  13. Slightly off-topic, there should be an amateur version of the Olympics, the way it was meant to be, where doping tests would be strict and performed daily, and a pro version where ped’s would be freely allowed. It would be fun to watch and compare both events.

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  14. If that wasn’t proven, why the ban of anabolic steroids? They are essentially one form or other of artificial testosterone.

    Firstly, in the intersex case the testosterone isn’t artificial, it’s completely natural so understandably the CAS (Council of Arbitration in Sport) found that the burden of proof is reversed – you can say “we ban this drug because it *might* improve performance”, but it’s a different thing to say “we ban you, because you *might* naturally have an unfair advantage”.

    Secondly, some studies came out in 2014 that reported no association between testosterone and performance in elite female athletes – here’s the one that was used heavily in the proceedings: Endocrine profiles in 693 elite athletes in the postcompetition setting.

    Thirdly, the IAAF had imposed a limit of 10nmol/L for women, based on the understanding that it’s outside the normal range for women and at the lower range of men’s levels. After reviewing all the available data (which isn’t a lot) the CAS decided that the 10nmol/L limit is arbitrary and not backed up by scientific research.

    So what happened is that a female athlete (Dutee Chand) was told she could no longer compete and was being pressured to undergo surgery by her sponsors. She took the case to the CAS who found that the current limit wasn’t scientifically valid, so Chand was being unfairly discriminated against. They immediately lifted the ban for a maximum of 2 years so that Chand could continue her career while the IAAF come up with a more evidence-based policy… ironically this which may well end up *lowering* the limit, the upper 3-sigma confidence for elite female athletes is around 3nmol/L, and intersex athletes are overrepresented by a factor of over 100x at the elite level.

  15. That is pretty convoluted. In other words, men who can’t compete physiologically with men because they lack T-receptors are allowed to compete with women, because testosterone doesn’t benefit female athletic performance. But we still ban testosterone supplements because, well, because. Look, a squirrel!

    Semenya, btw, does not appear to have this syndrome given his pronounced musculature and comparatively large extremities.

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  16. Both Semenya and Dutta were raised as girls from birth as have been women all their lives – calling them “he” is like me calling you a “troll” – ie it’s pretty fucking rude and doesn’t help solve the problem (but sure does makes me feel good!).

    It’s a very interesting point though; since biologically XY intersex people are males with a hormone problem, one solution might be to let them race in the Paralympics as “disabled” men – in line with other Paralympic events there would be scope to include various levels of impairment based on testosterone levels. I’m sure there would be outcry that intersex people are not “disabled” but that would cast serious aspersions on amputee, wheelchair athletes etc. as being somehow “less” than Olympians… a real SJW conundrum :)

    Testosterone definitely improves male performance, hence the ban.

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  17. Semenya is probably an XY with undescended testes which are otherwise happily producing testosterone, which his body’s T-receptors put to good use to make him built like an LSU cornerback. That’s where your hypothesis falls apart: Semenya clearly has functioning T-receptors and a body which is naturally producing testosterone. An XY who had no functioning T-receptors would be soft and flabby, like the XXY’s which do exist and are deformed males.

    How bizarre is it that Caster Semenya can be made into an anagram: A Secret Man Yes.

  18. Which hypotheisis? All women have functioning T-receptors and a body that naturally produces testosterone, it’s the level than turns them into men in utero.

    Semenya’s T level is about 3-4 times the female average, a typical male has about 7-8 times the female average. She’s somewhere in between, which is why it’s called “intersex”. It might be worth noting that she doesn’t hold the women’s World Record in any event and her times would not her rank in the top 5,000 as a man.

    So XY chromosomes and undescended testes notwithstanding, Semenya is definitely not a normal male, and hasn’t undergone normal male development. She was probably indistinguishable from a girl until puberty, hence her lifelong identification as a woman.

    Ha! That anagram is funny – if her parent’s native language were English it could almost be a conspiracy!

  19. Semenya is definitely not a normal male

    Not breaking world records (mostly achieved in the steroid era) is no proof that she isn’t a normal male (most males would have a hard time breaking women’s world records, especially those set in the steroid era, probably false rumors about Kratochvilova being herself intersex notwithstanding), the only definitive proof that she’s not a normal male is that her testes are undescended, and for all I know she doesn’t have a penis either.

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  20. But does Semenya have ovaries and a uterus and an XX chromosomal pair? I’m guessing no. So, not female. Semenya may have malformed genitals, but there is no such thing as “intersex.”

  21. Strict doping tests are a nightmare. No amateur could withstand the whole thing, for example they have to report their whereabouts three months in advance (so that they could be tested by surprise), and they have to watch what they eat, because a lot of foodstuffs might contain this or that banned substance.

    Moreover, the participants in fully amateur competitions (for example in body building) are often juiced to the hilt. I even suspect amateur triathletes etc., because you need a very high level of fanaticism to finish an ironman competition in under 10 hours. In any competition the best amateurs are usually better than the worst professionals.

    Freely allowed PEDs would mean strange-looking freaks (especially in the “women” category, though I suspect you’d dispense with it), who would often die on and off competition. Though some sports (body building, powerlifting, WSM etc.) do look like that.

  22. Yes, I know that PEDs are everywhere. My point is that we might as well accept the fact that pros and many amateurs are doped to the gills and stop pretending we don’t know what’s going on.

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