Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Olympic Alphabet : X is for ...


Everyone has an X chromosome in every one of their body cells. Women have two. Occasionally they have a Y chromosome which is generally only found in men. His makes these women susceptible to the influence of this chromosome and its effects on the development of the creation of male hormones. It is this effect of hormones which we look at today.

The Rio Olympics has already been described as the most lgbt-friendly ever. A record 57 of the 59 known lgbt athletes competed openly during the games (two athletes have requested to remain anonymous for now). There have been at least three lgbt couples getting engaged as well as the first married couple, the Richardson-Walshes. A better review of Rio 2016 will appear after the Paralympics.

Among all the positive stories there has been several negative ones, but one is on-going. The inclusion of transgender, intersex athletes and women with high testosterone levels. It doesn’t matter how many X or Y chromosomes an athletes has there is still opposition to some female athletes being accepted into female competition. After the more subdued controversy around Caster Semenya’s inclusion in London 2012 she returned to the main pages in the press during Rio 2016. In several UK newspapers there have been banner headlines above a photo of Caster saying “Prove you’re a woman”. During the BBC’s coverage of the games, one of GB’s top ex-Olympians said this quite openly on several occasions on each day that Caster competed.

In my “Olympic Countdown” series in the run-up to London 2012 I wrote a brief outline of gender verification at the Olympic games. Since then there has been more controversies and revisions of verification policies.

There has never been any proof which shows that female athletes likes Caster Semenya with a condition called hyperandrogenism have any unfair advantage over other female athletes. Yet people accept that lgbt Olympian Brittney Griner has an unfair advantage over other female basketball players because she is taller. The same is true of Usain Bolt of course. He is taller and has longer legs that increases his stride further than others.

Hyperandrogenism is a genetic condition in which higher than normal levels of male hormones, androgens, are produced. Testosterone is just one of these hormones. The IOC and international sport has been struggling with the problem of how much is too much in a female athlete.

Just over a year ago the Court of Arbitration for Sport ordered the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to suspend all bans on female athletes with hyperandrogenism and high male hormone levels. They said, quite rightly, that there is no medical or physical evidence to prove that those with the condition have any advantage in sport.

The IAAF rules were formulated as a direct response to the success of South African athlete Caster Semenya in 2009. After the media fiasco of their media handling of that case the IAAF decided to allow Semenya to compete at the London 2012 Olympics. Other athletes, however, fared less well. The Indian athlete Dutee Chand was banned from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow because of her hyperandrogenism. It was her solicitors who challenged the ban and took the case to the Court of Arbitration.

The IAAF cannot be blamed for making rules based on their incomplete knowledge of the medical condition because no-one knows enough. But the Court of Arbitration advised that a proper scientific study should be made to provide once and for all any proof that female athletes gain any advantage. Until then all bans are suspended.

It should also be made clear that athletes with hyperandrogenism do not necessarily identify themselves as lgbt. Dutee Chand certainly has not, though Caster Semenya is known to be in a same-sex union.

Based on the suspension of the bans on athletes the IOC produced a new set of guidelines in January this year. The rules set down a limit to the testosterone and other hormone levels it accepts when considering the inclusion of women athletes.

The new guidelines also included recommendations for transgender athletes. While no transgender athletes were known to compete in Rio 2016 there are several who could have taken part in Olympic trials and qualifying events.

Some of the media who contacted me for interviews during the Rio games seemed to think that these rules were a result of the high profile transgender news surrounding Caitlyn Jenner. They were unaware that the matter was being considered long before that.

As more research is carried out and the public understanding of the many gender and biological complexities of the human species improves we can only say we have the best regulations that current knowledge and science suggests. It is to be hoped that any regulation or ban will never prevent aspiring athletes with any gender condition from pursuing their Olympic dreams.

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