Sex and Sport in Transition

This morning we’re in the afterglow of the Super Bowl, which in recent years has had worrisome elements of pagan spectacle. But there are still worse spectacles in sport – in this, the Silly Season in the progress of our species.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced that any “transgender” athlete will be allowed to compete in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics in whatever sexual identity he/she chooses – with or without reassignment surgery. So a male runner may enter any race for women, simply because he declares himself female. The IOC will test male-to-female athletes for testosterone levels – too high, and you’re out. Since those T-levels must have been observed for one year prior to the Games, we’ll be spared commentary by Bob Costas from Rio about this glorious breakthrough for humanity.

Women were first permitted to compete in the Olympics in 1900 at Paris – in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf. (The golf and the tennis were women-only events. Golf was dropped after 1904 and will finally return at this year’s Games.) By 1928 a fuller schedule of competitions for women began, culminating in the most recent Games (London 2012), the first in which both sexes competed in every event, although, obviously, segregated by sex: 100 meters for men, 100 meters for women, etc.

But when the Games return to Tokyo in 2020 – an eon in terms of cultural change – I promise you athletes who were women at birth and have remained so will raise loud and justifiable protest about any transgender athlete whose T-levels happen to pass muster. Genetic testing used to be the standard but no more. (And expect natural women with abnormally high T-levels – i.e. >10 nmol/L – to now also be disqualified.)

I don’t know what one has to do to drive down testosterone levels, so I asked a prominent physician, who told me that serum testosterone as low as the IOC has established for male-to-female transgender athletes makes it “very unlikely” that a more-or-less normal man could qualify.

“Perhaps a genetically predisposed male (with Klinefelters Syndrome, for instance) may have such a low testosterone level” the doctor explained, although the other aspects of that condition make success in competitive athletics even more unlikely. “There are medical manipulations [involving injectable substances] to reduce serum testosterone levels,” he said, but one assumes most of those would likely be on an IOC list of banned substances. Unlikely, then, that even a third-rate male sprinter, desperate for Olympic Gold, will declare as female. If he does, however, he could win.

American Betty Robinson: first-ever Gold Medalist in track (1928)
American Betty Robinson: first-ever Gold Medalist in track (1928)

Muscle mass and attendant upper-body strength and leg power are clear advantages for male sprinters – in considerable degree a consequence of high testosterone – although not so much for distance runners. There’s a greater likelihood of a cross-over athlete in, say, the 5000 meters, especially so since – because of body type and training – some of those men are already low-T, although still – as my physician friend says – probably not low enough to qualify him as a her.

In the 2012 London Games, a 5000-meter runner who finished dead last in his preliminary heat in the men’s competition (and did not advance out of the preliminary heats) ran a 14:41:11. The eventual Gold Medalist in the women’s race, Meseret Dafar of Ethiopia, ran 15:04:25. This means this “slowest” man would have bested Ms. Dafar by about 200 meters – by half a lap of the track.

The prospect of crossover athletes (even, let’s be blunt, of cross-dressing ones) may seem the latest step in the new campaign for “gender” equality – except it’s not entirely new. A man named Richard Raskin (b. 1934), an ophthalmologist from New York, had been a heck of an athlete as a young man: he got an offer from the Yankees and was captain of the tennis team at Yale. Dr. Raskin had begun cross-dressing while an Eli and called himself Renée (French for reborn), and at the age of 41 had sex-reassignment surgery.

A year later (1976), the “rechristened” Renée Richards applied to play in the U.S. Open as a woman. The United States Tennis Association refused. Richards sued and won. As one doctor who supported Richards’ court case testified: “the removal of the testes. . .decreases tremendously the male hormones in the blood and results in a decreased muscular mass,” which in turn leads to the emergence of a muscle/fat balance “within the female norm.” Science speaks, although Richards’ serve remained dominating.

But remember that the IOC isn’t talking about admitting just post-op transsexuals into competition.

To be very clear about one thing: Renée Richards did not have reassignment surgery in order to compete successfully against “weaker” women. “How hungry for tennis success must you be,” Dr. Richards said recently, “to have your penis chopped off in pursuit of it?” That can apply nicely to all sports. Richards disagrees with the IOC’s recent decision and would ban male-to-female athletes in their twenties who’ll not have had time to undergo that gradual process of change referred in the doctor’s testimony during her court case: the masculine body becoming more feminine.

I can’t say what Richards’ opinion is of the prospect of a transgender Olympic athlete who has not undergone surgical reassignment, but it can, perhaps, be deduced from this:

It’s ironic [Richards says] that everyone has tried so hard to keep a level playing field – from corked bats to doping – but now the IOC has come up with a decision that defies fairness in a similar vein. Sex-reassignment surgery [really all of transgender transitioning] is based on putting materials into your body.

Life’s a mystery in so very many ways, and God’s love touches every single man and woman. We know this from Scripture, which, however, also instructs us: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Why, please tell me, can’t we let those natural, genetic categories rule the Olympic Games? Why wreck a century of progress in women’s athletics? Why embrace flimsy political correctness? Enough with the Promethean nonsense!

NOTE: Here’s an update from July 2, 2016. -ABM

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.