Thursday, September 10, 2009

Postgendered athletes in sports: Should intersexed persons be allowed to compete?

So, the mystery has been solved: world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa has both male and female sexual organs.

Extensive physical examinations of the 18-year-old runner ordered by the IAAF have shown she is technically intersexed. More specifically, she has no ovaries, but instead has internal male testes, which are producing large amounts of testosterone.

It's all about the testosterone

Testosterone is a natural hormone -- but it is a common performance-enhancing doping substance used by athletes. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, testosterone, and other hormones that boost testosterone levels, such as growth hormone, are among the most widely abused performance enhancers in sport.

Women do not have nearly as much testosterone as men. In fact, women have about 15 to 20 times less testosterone. And it's the primary reason why men are men and women are women. After men hit puberty, for example, they grow facial hair, their voice deepens and they develop muscle mass. Men have more testosterone, so they are much more equipped to gain muscle.

A natural edge

There's no question, then, that Semenya's unique physical condition gives her a decided advantage against her testosterone deprived female competitors. Consequently, the IAAF now has a difficult decision: should Semenya be disqualified? And should she even be allowed to compete?

The IAAF has already admitted that Semenya is not at fault here. This is not a doping issue. According to the IAAF, "These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this."

Their decision will be an important one because it will determine whether or not intersexed persons will be able to compete against regular males and females. If they rule that Semenya cannot compete, the IAAF will essentially be saying that there are some 'natural' physical conditions that have to be sanctioned against.

The potential implications are huge.

For instance, should an athlete like Michael Phelps (the 'natural transhuman athlete) -- who clearly has a decided genetic advantage -- be prevented from competing against less-endowed athletes? The question almost seems absurd, but this may be the path we are embarking upon.

If we start to regulate against so-called 'natural physical traits', where would we draw the line? Which genetic advantages would be fine and which wouldn't be? Why? And to what degree?

Sports in the postgendered future?

But looking ahead even further, it may also set a precedent for a prohibition against the deliberate blurring of male and female traits for competitive advantage. It's not unreasonable to suggest that some professional athletes -- women in particular-- may willingly adopt traits of the opposite sex to give them an edge. And as medical biotechnologies continue to advance, there's a very distinct possibility that such interventions may become more available.

It has been my contention that, as the human species enters into a transhuman condition, strictly stratified gender designations will begin to blur. Men and women will consciously trade-off advantageous gender-specific traits (both physical and cognitive), while discarding some gendered traits altogether. Gender may eventually become a thing of the past -- a legacy of our biological heritage.

Now, should the IAAF rule against intersexed persons, and by logical extension postgendered humans (including transgendered individuals), it would appear that the future has no place for these type of athletes.

This will clearly become a problem of discrimination. And it will likely be compounded by all the other 'enhancement' related interventions that future holds.

The IAAF has its work cut out for itself; as time passes, the issue of enhancement in sports can only get more and more complex.

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