There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.
Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.
Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.
But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.
Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?
In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.
If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.
There’s a lot going on here, but here’s what jumped out at us immediately: Women, particularly women athletes, are constantly told they’re not as strong or fast as men—and now that they’re proving otherwise, they’re being forced to undergo hormone treatments. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that women of color are coming under fire for this more than white women. From the article: “Lindsay Perry, another scientist, says sometimes whole teams of African women are dead ringers for men.” This is a clear example of how we’ve constructed a very particular, very narrow ideal of femininity and womanhood that devalues and casts aside black women in particular.