By JULIE JAG
LONDON – Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old boxer who claimed the first gold medal in the middleweight division in Olympic history Thursday, is proud of her masculinity in the ring.
“I know there’s not one male in this world that’s seen me box that’s said I fight like a girl,” Shields told a gaggle of reporters at a training session last week.
Strong, cocky and tough — traits normally associated with men — they helped her pummel all three of her opponents on her way to the gold. But Shields knows she is 100 percent female, which is why she wasn’t so keen on an idea being bounced around to make skirts a required part of the uniform for female boxers, who made their debut at the Olympics this year.
“I didn’t even understand that. I guess it was to separate the men from the women,” Shields said. “I was like, we got different names, women got breasts, we got butts. I can tell which is which.”
Yet if an official or opponent decides to question which Shields is, because she won’t wear a skirt or any other reason, her career may be what takes the knockout blow. According to researchers Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young, a new testosterone testing policy put in place by the International Olympic Committee little more than a month before the London Games basically reinstitutes gender policing at the Olympics, a practice the IOC discarded more than a decade ago.
“This isn’t just about intersex women, this is about all women,” said Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford. “If you have small breasts, big muscles and a lower voice, you are just as suspect. How is that different than Caster Semenya? It invites a kind of scrutiny that is really scary.”
The policy allows the chief medical officer from any country’s organizing committee, an IOC commission member or the athlete herself to question a female competitor’s levels of the androgen hormone. Androgen, the original anabolic steroid, occurs naturally in the body but can react differently than its synthetic form and appears distinctive from its synthetic form in doping tests. If the woman is found to have levels similar to a man’s and it gives her a competitive advantage, she could be required to undergo hormone therapy or be banned from competing in women’s events.
The policy ostensibly stems from the case of Semenya, an 800-meter runner who holds the fastest qualifying time for today’s 800 final at Olympic park.
At the 2009 World Track Championships, Semenya crushed the fastest time in the world that year — previously held by Soquel’s Maggie Vessey – by more than a second. It was also nearly four seconds faster than the South African runner’s previous personal record.
Skeptical opponents questioned whether Semenya was actually a woman, and their accusations set off a heated discussion of gender in sports. At the center was an embarrassed Cemenya, who had to sit out 11 months while undergoing gender testing before she was declared to indeed be a woman.
With the London Games upcoming and Semenya in position to qualify, the IOC met with various groups – including some representing hyperandrogenous and intersex people – in Miami in 2010, according to IOC media liaison Mark Adams. There they laid out a policy for differentiating between male and female competitors.
Since 1999, the IOC has recognized athletes’ gender to be whatever they claimed in their legal documents.
“It is important to emphasize that the policy does not include ‘gender testing’ or ‘sex testing,’” IOC spokesperson Andrew Mitchell wrote in an email. “Female competitions are for females, male competitions for males. The new rules are not intended to find a new definition for what is male and what is female. They only address the problem where females have functional androgene [sic] levels in the ‘male range’ [with consequent competitive advantages] and how such females should be judged in relation to their participation in competitions for females.”
That’s just the problem, say Karkazis and Jordan-Young. They say an athlete’s naturally occurring androgen hormone levels aren’t an accurate litmus test of how masculine or feminine a person is, even if the person is in the gray intersex range. Higher levels also don’t necessarily equate to better performances, even when a male or female’s body is receptive to the hormone.
Its may provide some advantage, they say, but no moreso than other traits like the cavernous lung capacity of British rower Pete Reed, who can take in nearly twice as much oxygen as Lance Armstrong, and the hyper-flexible joints of American swimmer Michael Phelps.
“It’s not like it’s irrelevant,” said Jordan-Young, an associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University. “But what you can’t say is you can predict strength and speed from testosterone.”
In addition, testosterone levels fluctuate. For example, the body naturally boosts testosterone levels in response to winning, and the first five placers in a final – the winners – are the ones who are automatically tested for doping. Athletes also generally produce higher levels than average. So a fit woman could win a medal, test for unusually high levels of testosterone and, if she also looks masculine, be singled out as a candidate for hyperandrogenism.
That raises another problem with the policy, according to the researchers. It unfairly places the spotlight on women who don’t conform to the popular idea of how a woman should look.
The year after Semenya was suspended from competition, Alysia Montano of Berkeley, who runs with a flower in her hair, took over the 800 world record for 2010. She, too, cut close to four seconds off her PR and was also coming off a foot injury that sidelined her for 2008 Olympic trials. Yet, her gender was not called into question.
“Could she have high testosterone?” Karkazis said of Montano. “Yeah, but the sense is no one is making a big outcry about it [because she looks more feminine].”
As with most things, the need for separation of the sexes mostly comes down to money. Medal winners receive usually receive cash from their country – the U.S. pays $25,000 for gold — and may receive additional bonuses from sponsors. As far back as 1936, then, there has been concern that men would enter women’s events to unfairly capitalize on those spoils. The IOC began gender testing in 1968 and it continued through 1996, when it stopped the process under social pressures.
Karkazis said she would like to see the IOC revert to a policy in which it does not gender test.
“Every biological way [of determining gender] has created these gray areas that make it sort of subjective, so we say [go by] legal sex,” she said.
Karkazis and Jordan-Young, who met earlier this week with Arne Lundqvist, chairman of the IOC’s medical commission, said they were told female athletes had requested a policy be put in place.
However, neither gold-medal boxer Shields, nor the women at a USA Track and Field team press conference last week, nor many of the wrestlers, weightlifters, swimmers and other athletes seemed to have given the policy much thought. They may not have even known it even existed.
“Some things you don’t focus on,” said USATF head women’s coach Amy Deem. “You can only control so many things. I only focus on what I control, and I can’t control that.”