Surveillance, security and testing in women’s sports

With each Olympics, a new set of issues and problems arise, as well as the same old ugly ‘two headed monster’ bears its head, without much of a change (such as the Russia fiasco and doping).

There are numerous criticisms of larger sporting events (such as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup etc.), however issues of gender and sexuality have largely been mute from these large events. The division seen in sports is largely due to the assumption that females cannot compete at the same level and are less competitive than their male counterparts, and in turn, are less competitive athletes (Blithe and Hanchey 2015, P486-487).

This year, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui caused an international uproar at the Rio 2016 Olympics with her unique interviewing styles and her ability to shed light on ‘taboo’ issues such as menstruation, as well as showing the Chinese Female Olympian having fun, which apparently is also a big ‘no-no’ in Chinese culture.

2008 Summer Olympics - Opening Ceremony - Beijing, China 同一个世界 同一个梦想 - U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program - FMWRC

Olympic Opening Ceremony celebrates ‘One World, One Dream’ by U.S. Army, CC by 2.0

This seemingly innocuous issue sheds light just how many issues that men (as well as many women) in society have with natural female body issues. Issues of gender and sexuality have been traditionally largely invisible from surveillance studies, and the same can be said of sports.

Athletes bodies are subject to different forms of surveillance, and many sports agencies test female athletes for androgen levels, which is considered a primary tool for ‘fair play’ in sports. However it can be seen as a reproducing tool for gender order through the process of inclusion and elimination (Jakubowska 2014, p. 454).

Not Resident Evil 5

‘Not Resident Evil 5’ by Kevin Lau, CC by 2.0

This competitive assumption that women are inferior to men creates a virtual ‘glass ceiling’ for female athletic performance and in turn sporting organisations do not require male athletes to undergo the same regimental testing that the female athletes are subjected to (Blithe and Hanchey 2015, p. 487).

Run faster, Jump higher

Run Faster, Jump Higher‘ by Helgi Halldórsson, CC by 2.0

Blithe and Hanchey continue to bring up the fall out of this testing, not limited to complex problems, controversy, invasion of privacy, body shaming complexes, nationality, sexuality and ability, just to name a few. Sailors et. al (2012, p23) discuss how the complexities that arise regarding the invasion of human privacy and rights by gender testing, and that by questioning a female athletes femininity and identity demeans the gender. Sports often celebrates homogeneous masculine norms in competition, and in turn exclude females in the norm, labelling female athletes as in a ‘pathological’ condition if they do not adhere to the societal social, athletic and physical norms. By not adhering to these norms they are perceived to be less feminine, and in turn are labelled as less authentic. This in itself is the crux of the underlying basis in the discussion of sex verification.

No athlete was more criticised and scrutinised these last Olympics than Caster Samenya, a South African middle distance runner, who was heavily scrutinised and subjected to a myriad of tests to determine her gender, and had a blanket ban put on her until it was resolved (Walhert et. Al 2012, p. 486). This was a punishment for being too fast and too masculine by Western society, due to an elevated level of testosterone in her body. The Swiss High Court for International Sport found last year that it was unable to conclude that hydroandrogenic female athletes may benefit from such a significant performance advantage that is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category (Wonkam et. Al 2010, p. 545)

And this is a win for all women, as hopefully in the future all women can be athletically judged based solely on performance, diet, coaching, training facilities and nutrition, instead of genetic and biological variations.


Blithe, S, & Hanchey, J 2015, ‘The Discursive Emergence of Gendered Physiological Discrimination in Sex Verification Testing’, Women’s Studies In Communication, 38, 4, pp. 486-506, Humanities Source.

Jakubowska, H 2014, ‘Gender verification in sport as a surveillance practice: An inside and outside perception’, Surveillance and Society, 11, 4, pp. 454-465.

Sailors, P, Teetzel, S, & Weaving, C 2012, ‘The Complexities of Sport, Gender, and Drug Testing’, American Journal Of Bioethics, 12, 7, pp. 23-25.

Wahlert, L, & Fiester, A 2012, ‘Gender Transports: Privileging the “Natural” in Gender Testing Debates for Intersex and Transgender Athletes’, American Journal Of Bioethics, 12, 7, pp. 19-21.

Wonkam, A, Fieggen, K, & Ramesar, R 2010, ‘Beyond the Caster Semenya Controversy: The Case of the Use of Genetics for Gender Testing in Sport’, Journal Of Genetic Counseling, 19, 6, pp. 545-548.




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