Int'l. Olympic Committee: gender difference is a disease

Following the Caster Semenya debacle, The International Olympic Committee plans to create health centers that would seek to diagnose and treat athletes who have "disorders of sex development." In other words, being born "intersex" is a disease? Not long ago, doctors and psychologists in the US thought homosexuality was a curable disease (some still do, but most of us regard these "professionals" as kooks).


  1. The word ‘disorder’ does not necessarily connote ‘disease’, but it is a very negative description of intersex or hormonally different people. Would ‘abnormality’ be more fair, since that is simply a statistical term? Regardless, the Olympics are an old institution, like sports itself, and it’s always been divided into ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ competition. How does the sports world, especially one as strictly regulated as the Olympics, adjust to a world which more widely accepts people who don’t fit in those norms? The solution seems complex, but treating people so they fit back into the men’s or women’s standards does not seem like a fair or ethical solution…

  2. They were doing this back in the 70’s and stopped it in 1999.

    Also it is worth noting that One person was given a pass in 1976 on the sex testing and that was Princess Anne of England.

    BTW – They are testing for the sex of the person. Gender isn’t a biological condition.

  3. Great, let’s add Intersexed to the medical voodoo kit. It’ll go great with Idiopathic Short Stature and Micromastia.

  4. Time to point to the great work of Cheryl Chase (intersexed activist) and ISNA (Intersexed Society Of North America) no?

  5. When Wilt and Kareem were both in the NBA, they banned dunking for several years.. Maybe they should just ban running fast or jumping high in the Olympics, to account for physically abnormal people.

  6. Well, as the article notes, it’s more or less a consequence of the dramas around the runner Caster Semenya. If a sport is to be divided by gender, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for those who don’t fit neatly into one box or the other.

  7. Not long ago, doctors and psychologists in the US thought homosexuality was a curable disease (some still do, but most of us regard them as kooks).

    Hey! Speak for yourself! I don’t regard gay people as kooks. Except maybe for Richard Simmons.

  8. Oh, get a grip. Intersex conditions are abnormal, in the neutral meaning of the word. If ‘abnormal’ has too many negative connotations, choose an equivalent one without those connotations. Personally, I like ‘exceptional’.

    What conditions are and should be ‘curable’ is a spectrum. For example, cochlea implants allow some children to hear, at the expense of the deaf community, thus generating a big pile of debate on the ethics involved. My view on this is that the best person to decide what’s appropriate is the person with the disorder. Just as transgendered people are treating a condition to do with their sexual identity, intersexed people may want to do similarly. As far as I’m concerned, they get to decide if their condition needs ‘treating’. You’re the one bringing the word ‘disease’ into the conversation, which is pretty disappointing.

    I’m really hoping that the IOC aren’t railroading people into treatments – I’d hope the worst case for an athlete who doesn’t want any treatment is that they just have to compete in the competition with the higher standards. However, the IOC has to do something to address the issue, and I’m not exactly sure what your suggestion is.

    1. “As far as I’m concerned, they get to decide if their condition needs ‘treating’.”

      This seems right to me. I don’t understand a deaf person choosing to remain deaf, but that’s not my call. I think someone wanting to be “cured” of homosexuality is misguided (not least because there is no such “cure”), but that’s not my call either.

      The problems arise when we impose rules that asign status based on these conditions. Olympics divided into male and female competition. Willingly deaf people who get disability benefits. Etc. That forces it to be everyone’s business. And that’s what should be avoided. I think the only fair thing is to merge the male and female sports, and thereby make it not our business anymore. If that means almost no men or almost no women are able to be competitive in various sports, well, that’s a shame, but you weren’t really the best in the world anyway, were you? You were the best fitting certain criteria. Similarly, I’m no good at basketball, but I’m the best out of people with my genes (and the worst, incidentally).

      1. Abandoning basic sex categories at the Olympics feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sports have all kinds of categories – age, weight, etc., and the people on the edge of those categories will have advantages and disadvantages, even if categorising people there is a little easier. This doesn’t stop the fundamental concept of categorisation being helpful, and it helps makes sport a lot more accessible.

        I’m not sure it’s worth taking away a distinction that’s very straightforward for 99%+ of the population, just to avoid a few corner cases. Better to deal with those corner cases as sensitively as you can, on a case-by-case basis, I think, which is exactly what the IOC are planning to introduce.

  9. Being born with ambiguous genitals is not a disease. Furthermore, being intersexed in this way is independent of gender; gender comes into play when we try to decide whether the person should compete on the men’s or women’s team. This illustrates a flaw in gender roles.

  10. The word disorder suggests the existance of an order, and an expression which does not adhere to this order.
    Now, the real interesting question is therefore not how we define the disorder, but rather how we define the order.

    O, and would for instance something like not being able to become pregnant as a female athlete because you’ve burned too much fat in your body be considered a disorder in sexual development?

    1. When 99% of the population falls evenly into one of two categories, it’s unreasonable to not call that an “order.” This is true completely independently of the issue of recognizing the existence of intersex people and treating everyone fairly.

      Also, since (A) fertility as such has nothing to do with athletic performance and (B) infertility due to low body fat is a temporary biochemical condition and not a developmental one, your analogy is complete nonsense.

  11. If you are able to compete at Olympic level in sports involving running, jumping, swimming and so on, there’s inevitably something unusual about your physiology.

    It seems pretty weird to have a great big gathering of people with hormonal abnormalities that make them extremely strong or fast, but ban athletes whose abnormality involves sex hormones.

  12. I personally think the Olympics is a rather bizarre gloficiation of things that human beings are outstandingly mediocre at.

    My lazy old cat (50 km/h) can run faster than Usain Bolt(43km/h). We can’t fly, we can barely swim (we can’t hold our breath for longer than a few minutes at most), and our muscles are feeble in comparison with plenty of other primates, let alone other large animals.

    It’s rather pathetic to watch people excel at mediocrity, and even more pathetic that people glorify these activities.

    In my (limited) experience of dealing with sporting organisations, they really are reactionary bastions of some truly antediluvian thinking. You might like to spend some time in Chigwell Golf Club (“ladies” not allowed in the bar after 12 noon – female serving staff aren’t “ladies” and are therefore excused) or talk to some members of the Football Association or the Marylebone Cricket Club, or, god help us, even go to a sportsman’s dinner.

    Now it’s entirely possible that my view is largely tainted by my experiences under a succession of sadistic muscle-brained morons I had at school as PE teachers, but I have infinitely more ‘spec for people who can do things that none of the other members of the animal kingdom can, like write sonnets, play blues guitar or build large hadron colliders.

    On the other hand, if they gave the Olympic performers unrestricted access to performance-enhancing drugs, at least the Olympics would be entertaining.

    Yes – I agree that exercise is probably good for you, but then again so is having sex and neither of them are really something you (well, I) want to undertake in public.

    Oh, and apparently the 2012 Olympics symbol looks like Lisa Simpson giving a blowjob and is therefore an illegal paedophile image.

    1. To be fair, your lazy old cat might run 50kph for a few dozen feet at most. Usain Bolt could (and would) beat him at the 100m and 200m dash.

  13. If it isn’t a disease or disorder to be intersexed, is it also not a disease or disorder to have Downe’s Syndrome?

    Its “who they are”, right?

    (I think I agree with the first poster that ‘abnormality’ is a better term in both cases, perhaps)

  14. There is a fairly easy way to deal with the Men Will Dominate fear of non-sex-divided sports; weight and/or height classes. Possibly the very largest weight/height classes will be dominated by men, the smallest by women, but in between, men and women of approximately similar stature/weight would be able to compete against each other. And intersexuality would simply be uninmportant. And no one of exceptional ability would need to fear being barred from competing just because of their gender.

    I don’t think women need protecting or to be given a little enclave where we only compete against other delicate flowers like ourselves; we just need a system that takes into account smaller size, which we already have in many sports. There is a great deal of variety within each gender after all; I knew a woman who would have made a respectable linebacker in college, and I’ve known men who were smaller than most women.

  15. An interesting post melding the mythological & biological origins of intersex and current social norms:

    Starting with Hermaphroditus himself, of course, we find the source of the questionable terminology. The son of Hermes and Aphrodite, the Greek pantheon’s archetypal male and female, he was quite the handsome youth, as you might expect.

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