New critique of Olympic ‘sex-testing’ policy for female athletes with hyper-androgenism on American Journal of Bioethics.

The Olympics Games in London are just around the corner, now less than one month away. At the 2012 Games, more than a decade after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) abandoned routine sex testing for female athletes, a ‘sex-testing’ policy will once again be in place. The change came in response to the case of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose sex was first challenged by her competitors at the Berlin World Athletic Championship in 2009.

I have been interested in Caster Semenya’s case since then, when the at that time 18-yo South-African athlete became the center of a harsh contestation, and was subsequently banned by IAAF from competition for 11-months while investigations on her sex were being conducted. At that time I co-authored a brief report for the Journal of Medical Ethics with Paolo Maugeri from the University of Milan, where we argued that the answer to the question on the eligibility of Caster to compete should not be expected to lie in the result of sex-testing (at that time the tests were still underway), as such a decision is not to be informed only by science, but also by ethical and philosophical considerations on the meaning of athletic excellence, and of fairness in competition.

In a new paper just published on the American Journal of Bioethics, and co-authored with Katrina Karkazis from the Stanford Center of Biomedical Ethics et al, we tackle a broader question: i.e. we aim not only at systematically criticising the new policies released by IAAF on May 2011 on the eligibility of female athletes to compete in the female category, but we also point out the broader social implications of the concern about “overly masculine” women competing in sports. Also, these policies prompt us to reflect, by completely neglecting it, the questions of: Under what circumstances, if any at all, is it ethical to require individuals to undergo medical interventions in order to compete? What unintended consequences might these policies have for female athletes (for example, by reinforcing pressures to adhere to feminine standards of beauty)?

Ultimately, the debate started from Caster’s case demands us to reflect on the meaning and aims of sports, in other words, its ‘ethos’. Caster has qualified for the Olympics and focuses on gold after finishing second last year at World Track Championships in Daegu, South Korea. We will surely hear more about this debate at the London Olympics, and this paper could potentially be very helpful in straightening out the existing flaws in the scientific and philosophical assumptions underlying the new policies, together with the disputable way in which the policy itself were drafted, as we describe in the paper. In the end we hope this paper will nudge a revision of the IAAF policies.

The full AJOB paper is currently available without charge here.

Coming up soon at King’s! Workshop exploring the concept of Health & Disease, Ability and Dis-ability in Elite Sports.

Disciplinary boundaries often unnecessarily separate students with similar interests. “King’s Interdisciplinary Discussion Society” (KIDS) is a new King’s College group seeking to bring together postgraduates and staff from all schools to discuss the philosophy and ethics of health. The next KIDS Winter Workshop, co-organized with the Centre for the Humanities & Health, will explore the concept of health and disease, able and dis-abled in relation to sports and the construction of categories in elite competitions. The workshop is organized by Dr Silvia Camporesi based at the CHH and Dr John Owens and Dr Andrew Papanikitas of the KIDS group.
The event will be opened by Professor Brian Hurwitz, Director of the CHH and D’Oyly Carte Professor of Medicine and the Arts in the Department of English. Mike McNamee, Professor of Applied Ethics at Swansea University, will give us philosophical insights into the concept of enhancement in sports. Professor McNamee is the former President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and was the founding Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association.

An example of an Olympic and enhanced bike in Bejing

Mike is also the founding Editor of Sport, Ethics and Philosophy and has written or edited a total of 11 books in philosophy and ethics applied to sport, including Sports, Virtues and Vices: morality play (Routledge, 2008). Dr Vanessa Heggie is based at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, and will offer us a historical and ethical perspective into the history of gender testing in sports. In 2010 Vanessa published a paper titled “Testing sex and gender in sports; reinventing, reimagining and reconstructing histories” and in March this year her first book “A History of British Sports Medicine” was published by Manchester University Press. A medical perspective on enhancement in sports will be given by Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, lead of the Healthcare Innovation and Policy Unit at Queen Mary University. Trisha’s research interests lie at the interface between sociology and medicine, where she uses innovative interdisciplinary approaches, drawing on narrative, ethnographic and participatory methods, to explore complex, policy-related issues in contemporary healthcare.
We hope to see many of you on November 10 in the Great Hall (King’s College Strand Campus). The event is free of charge but you need to write an email to to indicate the number of places you’d like to reserve as the number of attendees is limited. The event will run from 430 to 730 pm, with drinks reception to follow!

A Workshop on ‘Enhancement, identity and the construction of category in the Olympics’. Coming up in November at King’s.

For the first time in the history of track & field, in August 2011 a double-amputee athlete athlete competed against able-bodied athletes in the 400-meter event at World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Oscar Pistorius, 24 years old, was born with congenital absence of the fibulae in both legs, which were amputated just below the knees when he was 11 months old, and made it up to the semifinals in Daegu (you can watch the video of Oscar qualifying for the semifinals here).

Oscar Pistorius with two fellow athletes of the South African team at Daegu.

Pistorius’ case spurred debate four years ago, when he was banned from running with able-bodied athletes on grounds that his prosthesis gave him an “unfair” competitive edge over able-bodied athletes. Oscar appealed to the supreme Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (Switzerland), which in May 2008 reversed the sentence, and judged that Oscar does not have an unfair advantage over the other “able bodied” athletes (those interested can read more on the debate here). The story of Oscar Pistorius prompts a reflection on the construction of categories in sports: to what extent are they based on categories existing in nature, and to what are they instead a social construction? Also, to what extent are these categories informed by science and medicine, and to what by ethics, philosophy and eventually law? And what does it mean to be able, or disabled, in sports? Is it legitimate to talk about super-ability, enhancement and post-humans for the case of Oscar Pistorius? When can enhancement be considered doping? These are only some of the issues that arise when considering the effect of mechanical prostheses on the athletes, and when reflecting on how our concept of an Olympic athlete is going to be shaped by different kinds of enhancement, and to look like in, say, twenty years from now. Not only does Oscar Pistorius’ case prompts a reflection on the construction of categories in sports, but it also demands a broader one on the meaning and aims of sport, in other words, its ethics and philosophy.

The Centre for the Humanities & Health, together with the King’s Interdisciplinary Discussion Society (KIDS), are bringing together a panel of scientific and medical experts, ethicists and philosophers to discuss these issues in an open to the public workshop which will take place at King’s College on Thursday, November 10, 2011. The program of the event, complete with timetable and list of speakers will be published soon on this blog. Stay tuned!