These topics are addressed in a very interesting article by philosopher and bioethicist Silvia Camporesi that appears in the latest issue of Aeon. The article, entitled "Who is a Sportswoman?," considers (among other things) the construction of "natural" binary sexes and genders in elite sports, the alleged philosophical basis of the claims about unfairness and advantage that competitors such as Caster Semenya and (the disgraced) Oscar Pistorius variously raise, and the biopolitics of notions of normality and abnormality. I would have liked Camporesi's article to take a more critical position on the way in which disability is performatively constructed in the discourses discussed and how this construction is mutually constitutive and mutually supporting of the construction of gender and race therein; nevertheless, here is an excerpt from the article:
Writing in 1974, Eduardo Hay of the IOC Medical Commission provided a window into the thinking behind the policies of that era: ‘Today the purpose of the femininity tests carried out on women athletes taking part in the Olympic Games is to make sure that all female athletes compete under identical anatomical conditions.’
In 2011, the IOC announced the purpose of its new hyperandrogenism policy in substantially similar language: to ‘guarantee the fairness and integrity of female competitions for all female athletes’. While the IOC no longer uses the term ‘femininity’ in its regulations, the substance has not changed much in more than 40 years. Its regulations display a marked focus on what are broadly considered ‘feminine’ physical characteristics, such as lack of body hair and the size of breasts.
Though these controversial regulations were removed from the IAAF website in 2015, after they were suspended – but not overturned – by the CAS, you can see them here. The IAAF holds that women should look like women, as illustrated in the tables and charts produced in Appendix 2. One surprising IAAF score sheet, based on a systemoriginally produced by two doctors from North Middlesex Hospital London in 1961, points to the amount of hair on a woman’s body on a scale from 0 (no excessive hair growth) to 4 (extremely excessive) in 11 different body parts: the upper lip, chin, chest, upper back, lower back, upper abdomen, lower abdomen, arm, forearm, thigh, and lower leg.
Of course, what counts as excessive body hair is in the eyes of the beholder and is, in part, a social and cultural construct. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s moustaches were considered sensual in Mexico between the 1930s and ’50s, but would probably score as a 3 or 4 according to the IAAF chart.
Outrageously, another section of the same guidelines contains charts drawn from the Tanner-Whitehouse scale on breast development. Does the athlete have breast buds with just a small area of the areola widened, or has the breast reached a ‘final adult size’ with the areola contouring to the breast and a projecting central nipple? These traits are clues as to the athlete’s natural testosterone, the regulations claim – with the smaller breast suggesting an individual high on the testosterone scale.
Thanks to this scoring system, women who don’t conform to Western standards of femininity – women such as Semenya and Serena Williams – can become targets for fellow athletes, doctors and the (often male, often white) directors of athletic federations, as well as the media. And that, in turn, can trigger a gender investigation that bans the athlete from the field.
Sport therefore becomes the new arena for gender as performance – something you do, not something you are. Think of the American sprinter Flo Jo, who used to run with very long painted nails, or more recently of the Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who also regularly competes with painted nails, or the American 800-metre runner Maggie Vessey, who competes in unambiguous ‘girly’ outfits (for which she often receives ‘praise’).
Semenya did not ‘perform gender’ like these women. She might have worn two-piece uniforms in competition, but she did not wear bikini bottoms. Nor did she wear her hair in a bouncy ponytail. Nevertheless, her case seemed to go under the radar for good after the 2012 London Olympics, when she finished second after the Russian athlete Mariya Savinova. (Savinova was stripped of her medal in February 2017, following a CAS ruling that she had been doping. Semenya was retrospectively awarded gold.)
Camporesi's article can be found here.
posted by Shelley