Gender, sport and technology at the Olympics July 31, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
In this blog, I would like to raise the issue of gender. The Olympic Games tend to simplify the identity of sports. That is, sporting events at the Games are differentiated largely on the grounds of:
- Type of sport, e.g., soccer, 100m dash, synchronized swimming, etc., and
- Type of competitor, e.g., male and female, individual or team, or weight category.
In other competitions, one might find sports broken down along further parameters, e.g., age groups, ability levels, recreational versus professional experience, and so on. The point of creating all these categories of competition seems to be inclusiveness, that is, to allow as diverse a range of participants as is feasible. The point of the Olympics, however, seems to be to be exclusiveness, that is, to produce and to showcase a select number of elite performances.
Perhaps the main exception to the ideology of exclusiveness at the Olympics is the breakdown of competitors according to gender. The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 had no women’s sports, but each Olympics thereafter has included an increasing number of them. The number of male athletes and events still dominate (the Beijing 2008 Games included 1,704 more male than female athletes, and 38 more male than female sports events/classes), but addition of women’s events have increased the scope of the Games to a large degree. It seems that the tension between the values of exclusivity and inclusivity has moved in favor of inclusivity over time: The types of competitors allowed has increased the number of events, in spite of continuing emphasis on exclusivity in the types of sports.
Technology has, in most ways, played a minor role in this development. Very few sports stipulate that men and women must employ different equipment in their events. The only one that comes to mind is gymnastics, in which only men compete on the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, and the rings, whereas only women compete on the uneven bars and the balance beam. In other sports, women and men could use the same equipment, if they so choose.
The most controversial application of technology to gender is in gender tests. Because they tend to be physically stronger than women, there is an incentive for male athletes to compete as women. There have been a few competitors in the women’s events who were suspected of being men. The IOC introduced gender tests in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, which involved a physical examination by a series of doctors. However, since these tests were humiliating and invasive, they were discontinued in favor of a more high-tech alternative: genetic testing. Only athletes with XX chromosomes could be considered female for purposes of competition. Of course, this test also proved unsatisfactory, as some people have genetic conditions that call into question the mapping of womanhood to XX chromosomes. For example, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska had cells that were a mosaic of XX and XXY chromosomes.
The IOC has thus abandoned genetic definitions of men and women. Instead, an athlete is now considered male if their testosterone level is in the male range:
The new rules, announced last month, disqualify athletes from women’s events if they have testosterone levels in the normal male range, which is 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter of blood. Because the top range for women is slightly below 3 nanomoles per liter, such levels could give athletes an unfair advantage that officials have a duty to root out, said Dr. Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of IOC’s Medical Commission and a former Olympic high jumper.
Note that this new test is essentially like a drug test: It is less a test of maleness as much as a test for a performance-enhancing substance. However, it is far from clear that this test will do any better since the relationship between testosterone levels and performance in female athletes is not well understood. It is quite possible that the new rule will give rise to the same sort of problems as did the older one.
In brief, technology has done little to support the value of inclusivity as far as gender is concerned. With the exception of gymnastics, technology has done little to establish any contrast between men’s and women’s events through the development of gender-specific equipment. Neither has it done much to sustain the distinction between male and female competitors.
The question then arises: Is technology neutral with respect to exclusivity or inclusivity within Olympic sports? Or, does it tend to reduce the difference between genders in that arena? What is your view?