Opinion Brief

Is it unfair to ban female Olympians with too much testosterone?

Olympic officials are reportedly considering new "gender verification" guidelines that would bar women from competing if they are too masculine

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is reportedly considering new rules that would ban female Olympians who are not "feminine" enough. The IOC argues that women with high testosterone levels similar to the amount found in men have an unfair athletic advantage, and should be barred from competing alongside female athletes with average testosterone levels. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis co-wrote a blistering takedown of the proposal in The New York Times, arguing that such a rule would be discriminatory and ineffective, as "there is just too much variation in how bodies make and respond to testosterone" for the guidelines to be fair. Should the IOC reconsider?

This rule is a terrible idea: Tying eligibility to testerone levels isn't just unfair, says Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel, it's detrimental to sports, too. Sex-verification testing "takes away from more pressing athletic gender bias issues" — like how there are 40 more Olympic events for men than women. While such inequities abound, it's awful that the IOC is focusing on the fool's errand of preventing "'real' women from competing against women who 'play like men.'""Here's why Olympic sex verification is a bad idea"

Maybe this rule is the best we can hope for: These guidelines aren't perfect, but they're a step in the right direction, says Eric Vilain at The New York Times. The one metric that clearly provides an advantage in sports — "with levels that did not overlap between men and women and could entirely explain why men did better than women in elite sports" — is testosterone. It's incredibly rare for a woman to naturally reach testosterone levels in the male range, making the hormone as fair a barometer as officials could reasonably ask for."Gender testing for athletes remains a tough call"

But it's such a double standard: We should reject the idea that you can measure a woman's "femaleness" at all, let alone judge how that affects her athletic performance, says Sam Murphy at the U.K.'s Guardian. And remember, the playing field of sports is inherently uneven: Your athletic future depends on your parents' willingness to shuttle you to practice, whether you can afford to buy equipment, and, of course your genes. "Why should hormone levels be any different?" It's not like male athletes have identical hormone levels, but no one bars the "unusually slight French 100m runner Christophe Lemaitre" from competing against beefy Jamaican Usain Bolt. What a double standard."London 2012 Olympics: Is measuring athletes' 'femaleness' ever acceptable?"

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