Sport is peculiar in being one of the very few social spaces in which gender segregation is taken for granted: men’s and women’s events take place separately.
There are mechanisms to ensure that athletes compete in the ‘right’ category: various sex/gender verification tests are used to determine an athlete’s ‘real’ sex. Usually this is justified in relation to fairness of competition.
Problems occur when athletes don’t quite fit into the neat, binary gender categories that sport attempts to define and police.
Several recent cases have highlighted the impossibility of determining sex in any straightforward way. Whether we use reproductive organs, chromosomes or hormone levels as ‘indicators’ of sex, no clear definition obtains.
The cases of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand and Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley have shown that the measurements used to determine whether an athlete is ‘really’ a woman are arbitrary – sometimes they just don’t work.
The IOC has made important changes to its transgender policy in response to some of these issues. Transgender athletes will now be allowed to compete in the Olympics without having to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Testosterone levels only are now used to determine eligibility to compete as a woman — though both sexes produce this hormone, so problems remain.
The case of cyclist Kristen Worley is particularly interesting: Worley is a transitioned woman. She is prohibited by UCI rules from taking the synthetic hormones she needs in order to avoid serious health complications, and so is effectively barred from competing. In response, she has filed a human rights complaint.
This is just one example of the ways in which the binary structure of sport doesn’t fully accommodate the ways in which sex and gender are embodied and lived.
There is no easy solution, but it’s up to sport to adapt and change.