Science, Sex, and the Olympics

bridges vol. 34, July 2012 / Pielke's Perspective 

By Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

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Roger A. Pielke, Jr. Roger A. Pielke, Jr. Early in the 19th century, the English poet Robert Southey explained that little girls are "sugar and spice, and all things nice" while little boys are "snips and snails and puppy dog tails." Such descriptions are apparently not rigorous enough to determine who gets to participate in women's events in the Olympics, so last month the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued new regulations on the eligibility of athletes to participate in women's events in the upcoming London Games.

The new regulations seek to head off controversies such as erupted at the Track and Field World Championships in 2009, when South African runner Caster Semenya's victory in the 800 meters was followed by accusations that she had competed unfairly in a women's event. The response to the accusations focused on applying a "gender test," which was embarrassing for the body that governs track and field and demeaning to Semenya, and ultimately did little to clarify things.

The issues here are much broader than just competition categories at the Olympics and go to the heart of the challenges in using science in decision making. Decisions are almost always formulated in binary categories: pass the legislation, sign the treaty, implement the law – or not. In the case of the Olympics, a binary decision is whether the athlete should compete as a man or woman, since these are the two categories of the games.

But it turns out that the science of gender is not so straightforward, and human evolution has not made us all so that we easily fit into binary categories. The IOC recognizes this and explains that human biology "allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female." Recognizing this ambiguity, the IOC explains: "Nothing in these Regulations is intended to make any determination of sex."

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