18 July 2012

Science, Sex and the Olympics

My latest column at Bridges:
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. . .
 Read the rest here, comments welcomed.


  1. Star athletes are almost certain to be outliers on dozen of genes which correlate with performance. Agreed that picking testosterone is silly. One could look at expression of a host of sex-linked genes.

    But more fundamentally, the problem is the existence of women's athletics. Obviously, 52% of the population cannot be deprived of the opportunity to complete at the top level, and lumping men and women together would ensure such deprivation. But since the explicit reason for the category is an innate deficit in women's abilities, can one then penalize women for not being deficient enough?

  2. What remedy would you recommend? There must be objective standards; but, apparently, we cannot even agree on what constitutes "objective."

    In the context of human viability, and therefore principal social standards, we distinguish between men and women by their functional ability to reproduce. However, this criteria is not especially relevant to athletic competition. Perhaps our judgment should be guided not by qualitative and quantitative physiological similarities; but, the outcome of those characteristics. I would consider this analogous to the difference between potential and kinetic energy. In other words, classification would occur according to active profiling.

  3. To summarize my comment, we could classify individuals not by physiology but by behavior.

    Of course, classifying individuals who share different physiological characteristics together will be controversial; but, as with similar markets, the issue of merit is performance. The remaining pragmatic question is if this "objective" standard will engender consequences which are undesirable or unacceptable according to relevant and related criteria.

    This revolutionary change will effectively normalize an alternative perception. Would this change engender positive or negative progress for consequential matters (e.g. evolutionary fitness, preservation of individual dignity)?

  4. .

    It is absolutely inescapable that once an organization decides to have multiple classes of competition it will have to define what the rules for acceptance to those classes.

    My preference would be XX for the Women's class and XY and everything else for Men's class. However, its their show so they can do whatever they like.


  5. Why not have testosterone classes for the affected events, in the same manner that there are weight classes in boxing and wrestling? It would probably give rise to a sophisticated technology of optimal doping, but that might not be entirely bad.

  6. I'm not sure what the point is here. Biology is messy, including matters of sex (not gender, sex). Be that as it may, we have competitions for men and for women, and we need a way to keep the two straight. At some point, you just have to make a decision. The decision may be imperfect, but that's the nature of dealing with messy problems.

    The IOC does not promise self-perceived 'fairness' to all competitors without exception. If one person on the planet loses out each four years, I think we're doing pretty good.

    Of course, the obvious solution is to eliminate the distinction between male and female and just let everyone compete equally. I'd actually be in favor of that in principle. The best win.

  7. Mark B.:

    From the perspective of the natural order, it makes sense for society to value male physical prowess. From the same perspective, it makes sense for society to value female physical attributes, including aesthetic appeal. With this in mind, male athletics serves a function in society, while female athletics is purely a matter of luxury afforded to women by a stable community.

    I suggested classification according to kinetic features, but it would be an experiment unmerited by natural law. It is intended wholly as an appeal to human ego. Still, I question the potential consequences of further overturning the natural order. We have already observed evolutionary dysfunction (e.g. a majority of a population reproducing in the minority; normalization of abortion, promiscuity, etc. in deference to individual egos) in a single succeeding generation. I wonder what risk we incur if we continue to deviate (i.e. through normalization) from the natural order.

    All of this is only relevant if the conscious order remains subservient to the natural order. It is clear that many people believe it does not, and that human ingenuity has permitted us to overcome our natural constraints. Unfortunately, they are only partially correct, and after only one succeeding generation the consequences of normalizing dysfunctional behaviors and promoting policies which both denigrate individual dignity and devalue human life is already evident.

    Well, it's just an athletic competition, let the grand social experiment continue.