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It's a fair game

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 15.08.04, 12:00 AM

The most meaningful record to be set at the Athens Olympics won’t involve split-second decisions or medals. In May, the IOC made a pathbreaking ruling when it paved the way for transsexual athletes to compete in the Games. As long as an athlete’s gender was legally recognised and s/he had completed two years of post-operative hormone therapy, s/he would have a right to take part.

The ruling came too late to allow transsexual athletes to take the field in 2004, but 2008 might be a different story. In no other field of human endeavour have the borders of gender been so often and so carefully debated. And the decision made by the IOC might, eventually, contribute to transsexuals — defined here as those who change their gender voluntarily, employing standard medical procedures — facing less discrimination.

Perhaps the best known example of a transsexual who successfully changed gender outside sport is Jan Morris, who began life as James Morris but realised he would be happier off as a woman. She changed gender between 1964 and 1972, and described the process in Conundrum (1974).

In sport, the guiding light for transsexuals is probably Renee Richards. (Male-to-female transsexuals are still far more common than female-to-male.) Born Richard Raskin, Renee switched her gender identity in her late 40s. She went on to compete in women’s tennis tournaments. It was seen as a setback when she registered her opposition to the IOC’s decision. Her argument was that the physiological differences between men and women remain and that hormone therapy can add a performance edge in some sports. This was disproved in her case by doctors who studied her performance as a woman tennis player who happened to have been born male and declared that she had no genetic advantage. But Richards’ point, made to a transsexual movement that sees her as a traitor to the cause, is that the physical superiority of men to women in some sports should not be discounted.

The IOC’s decision will make it more difficult for gender frauds, as opposed to transsexuals, to hoodwink their way to a medal. There were the two Soviet sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, who competed in the shot-put and the hurdles and disappeared when gender testing was introduced in 1964.

The Press sisters would probably have fallen into a grey area peculiar to women rather than men, where a small percentage of women are born gender-ambiguous. Non-standard babies might have XXY, XXYY or XXXY chromosomes instead of the “standard” XX chromosomes. In the late 1980s, the medical establishment began to question the idea that “normal” female phenotypes were really the norm, given the amount of deviation. The IOC ruling is a welcome indication that our rigid ideas about gender identity are beginning to shift. If the Olympics can make space for those who are gender-ambiguous, or for those who make a decision to change gender, they make it that much easier for the wo/man on the street to accept the idea that gender is far more fluid than we knew.

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