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Posted in Quick Hits on September 16th, 2009 by Ed

I have to be somewhat brief today.

1. Be sure to read E.J. Dionne's piece on Joe Wilson in the WaPo. It touches on yesterday's theme (the lack of civility) and questions what the hooray-for-Joe-Wilson reaction among half of the population says about us as a society. When did we become such assholes? It's a complex issue, in my opinion. Our society was more polite and we conducted ourselves with far more decorum 100 years ago. But 100 years ago society also thought burning black men at the stake was a suitable weekend recreational activity. Not to mention that whole separate-but-equal thing. Perhaps not so civil after all.

2. If you are even moderately interested in gender or sports, I highly recommend this piece on South African sprinter Caster Semanaya from the blog The Science of Sport by a pair of Ph.D.s from South Africa. It describes in great detail the complexity of the question of sex; not gender, mind you, which involves questions of psychological and social identities, but of "simple" biological sex. It's easy, right? Just drop trou and look at everyone's plumbing, right? Well, not really. Not at all. Semanaya is a perfect example of what athletic bodies have to deal with when they cannot produce an answer to that apparently simple question. The really interesting part is that this is not rare; genetic testing at the Olympics between 1972 and 1996 revealed that 0.3% of female competitors (28 out of 8600) failed the genetic test. That is, they had a "Y" chromosome. In every case the competitors were allowed to compete after additional examination. This isn't that uncommon, in other words. Perhaps not every case is as puzzling as Semanaya (who has male but not female sex organs, yet a "female" genetic makeup which leaves her body largely unaffected by the hormones her testes produce) but she is far from the first female athlete to produce a collective WTF from the IOC and IAAF.

I recognize the organizations' need to do some sort of verification to prevent men from simply disguising themselves as women to compete (and yes, it has happened). But once the question moves beyond blatant frauds of that variety and into these complicated questions of intersexuality – XXY people or athletes with "ambiguous" sexual organs/characteristics – the waters get very muddy indeed. On a positive note, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all of the female athletes who failed the IOC test were allowed to compete once it was determined that they were not simply men masquerading as women. It's good to know that they understand the substantial ambiguity that exists with this subject.