by Lindsay Parks Pieper
Renée Clarke towered over all of her competitors in the 1976 La Jolla tennis tournament. Aided by a six-feet-two-inch frame and a left-handed advantage, she triumphed, alternating her seemingly-effortless lobs with well-placed baseline shots.
Dick Carlson — a San Diego reporter covering the local tournament — found himself astounded first by Clarke’s height, then by her skill. Curious about the sudden emergence of this previously unknown phenom, Carlson inquired about Clarke’s background. Initially, he had simply intended to fill airtime with an inspiring tale about a local standout; however, Carlson instead produced a revealing expose that inevitably turned the national spotlight onto the California tennis tournament and its new star.
He identified Renèe Clarke as Renèe Richards, the former male professional tennis player Richard Raskind.
The unearthing of a post-operative male-to-female transsexual in women’s tennis immediately gained national attention and forever complicated the organizational blueprint of sports in the United States and internationally.
Historically, the gender-segregated structure of sports revolved around the conviction of a supposedly clear division between men and women — one originally founded upon visible anatomical differences and the belief of male biological advantage. Richards’ presence challenged the validity of this division. Her successful New York State Supreme Court lawsuit, filed in 1977 against the United States Tennis Association, granted her access to the women’s professional tennis circuit, further blurring the supposed gender split in sports.
Nevertheless, international sports authorities remained steadfast in the belief of a gender dichotomy and bolstered policies to ensure such segregation persisted in competition. In the 1966 Track & Field Championships, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced physical examinations for female participants to prevent the inclusion of male masqueraders. Following suit, inthe 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the IOC mandated that all female competitors submit to sex testing to determine appropriate classification. Gender verification tests remained a requirement for women Olympians until the 2000 Sydney Games.
Enforcing Gender With Sports Rules
Despite the efforts of both international sports organizations — the IAAF and the IOC — to solidify separation, the gender policies enacted illustrated the impossibility of drawing a clear sex divide. In actuality, the tests demonstrated a gender continuum.
Gender, as determined by both primary and secondary sexual characteristics, as well as by societal norms, exists fluidly on a spectrum, rather than being definitively polarized. Whether dependent on chromosomal counts or hormonal composition, gender verification tests failed to neatly divide the Olympic athletes and instead isolated the women who fell “in between.” Biological abnormalities, such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or intersex conditions frequently caused women to unfairly fail. In the 1996 Atlanta Games, for example, eight females failed the required test; seven were found to be intersexed. After appeal, all eight were cleared to compete.
|The Olympics |
Recognizing the inability of defining gender through sex tests, the International Olympic Committee and similar organizations discontinued the practice after the Atlanta Games. Yet, sport structures continue to attempt such classification, illustrated in treatment of transsexual athletes.
Various sports authorities have individually responded to demands for inclusion from a handful of transsexual athletes. For example, after male-to-female transsexual Charlotte Wood placed third in the 1987 U.S. Seniors Women’s Amateur golf championship and reached the semi-finals of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur the same year, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) quickly instituted a “female at birth” policy, which they maintained for the next 18 and 23 years, respectively. While the USGA dissolved the requirement in response to the introduction of an Olympic transgender policy, the LPGA only altered its stipulation when confronted with a lawsuit. Conversely, Women’s Golf Australia (WGA) welcomed male-to-female transsexual Mianne Bagger in 1999; additional European tours followed the example in 2004.
Responsesto these athletes prompted the International Olympic Committee to hold hearings about the possible inclusion of transsexual competitors for the 2004 Athens Summer Games. The IOC Medical Commission, composed of seven leading professors and doctors, listened to reports from medical experts and discussed questions of human rights, doping and performance equality in athletics. After months of prolonged conversation, the IOC created the Stockholm Consensus, outlining very specific rules to stipulate transsexual participation in Olympics Games. With the Stockholm Consensus, the International Olympic Committee became the first international, multi-sport federation to establish gender qualifications.
Policy Eliminates the Spectrum
The IOC crystallized a gender-segregation approach. This policy diminished the possibility for gender fluidity in Olympic competition and instead created gender definitions that force transsexual athletes into a specific category — “male” or “female.”
For transgendered individuals to participate, the Stockholm Consensus has several requirements. First, they must have undergone sex-reassignment surgery that alters external genitalia. The second mandate requires that transsexual participants have received legal recognition of their assigned sex by “appropriate official authorities” in their home country. In addition, according to the medical commission, transsexual athletes must administer hormone therapy “appropriate for the assigned sex… in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages in competitive sport competitions.” Finally, the Stockholm Consensus stipulates that each transsexual athlete undergo individual investigation prior to competition.
|The status |
There are problems with this approach. For one thing, the status of genitals holds no significance in sports other than for categorization purposes. The Stockholm Consensus maintains a Western, elite bias and discriminates against individuals from poorer, less-industrialized nations. Sex-reassignment is expensive, which means it is available only to affluent athletes. Several countries do not even have the medical care necessary for performing sex-reassignment operations, and, in any case, surgery for female-to-male transsexuals has yet to be perfected. As a result, for many, surgery remains impossible or undesirable.
The requirement that the individual is getting “appropriate” hormones is difficult because no single standard exists. And because transsexual athletes require hormone treatment, people conflate this treatment with doping, further stigmatizing transsexual athletes. In addition, the strict medical criteria excludes intersexed participants completely.
Recognition by “appropriate official authorities” proves similarly challenging. Transsexuals outside of the U.S. and Europe have problems in attempting to change their legal status. Even in the U.S., gender recognition varies state-by-state.
The IOC fears that unstipulated access for transsexual athletes into Olympic competition would cultivate an unfair athletic environment. The organization’s claim that the Stockholm Consensus maintains a level playing field stems from fears of male-to-female transsexual inclusion (as in the case of Renee Richards) and the assumption of innate male biological advantage.
Better Approaches Needed
Unfortunately, several sports organizations have now implemented strict gender policies that mirror the Stockholm Consensus. Most follow the guidelines exactly and perpetuate gender boundaries. In 2006, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced identical gender requirements. The IAAF justified the new provisions as a “mechanism for managing the issue of gender amongst participants in women’s events.” In emphasizing the issue of gender for women and not men, the international association clearly indicates that it sees transsexual athletes as blurring gender in order to gain an advantage. Its rules state that “if there is any suspicion or if there is a challenge then the athlete concerned can be asked to attend a medical evaluation before a panel.”
|Termining male-female separation |
in the Olympics would allow for
greater gender malleability in
society at large
Since the International Olympic Committee is a beacon of authority, the Stockholm Consensus not only influences other institutions but also encourages patriarchy and constructs transsexual athletes as “freaks.”
Instead of relying upon incorrect notions of a concrete gender divide, the International Olympic Committee should implement a transgender policy that would radically alter the classification system of the Olympics. By allowing transgender athletes to compete without restriction, the IOC could alleviate sports’ dependency upon sex-segregation. Because a gender polarization is false, and has repeatedly been shown to be false, the IOC could base competition on different categorizations, such as height or weight.
Shaping participation on measurable physical characteristics would enrich competition and alleviate patriarchal assumptions. Most importantly, perhaps, the termination of male-female separation in the Olympics would allow for greater gender malleability, not only in sport, but in society at large.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is a doctoral candidate in the Sport Humanities program at Ohio State University. A graduate of the International Olympic Academy, she has earned a graduate interdisciplinary specialization in Sexuality Studies and a Master’s Degree in Women’s History.
Also see Winning the Sports Beat: Female Writers Need Wide Angle Lens by Marie Hardin in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Aspiring for Medals: Watching New Gymnastic Generations by Zerlina Maxwell in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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