August 11, 2006

The Best Rider With Two X Chromosomes

Michelle Dumaresq and the 100% Pure Woman Canadian Champion

Canadian mountain biker Danika Schroeter has been suspended for three months for inappropriate behaviour at the Canadian downhill championships. The women's title was won by Michelle Dumaresq, her third. Schroeter finished in second place, losing to Dumaresq by one second. For the medal presentation (pictured at right), Schroeter wore a sponsor's white t-shirt with the words "100% Pure Woman Champ 2006" scrawled on the front.

Schroeter's claim of 100% purity might be a bit puzzling if you don't know the back story here, and you might assume that she's making an allegation about doping. But Schroeter isn't claiming to be more virtuous than Dumaresq; she's claiming to be more female. You see, Michelle Dumaresq does not have two X chromosomes. She was born a male, and underwent sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) in 1996.

This is not a secret. The IOC now allows individuals who have had SRS to compete under the reassigned sex under certain circumstances (more on that later). The international governing body for cycling, the UCI, has adopted those same rules for international competitions (including downhill, even though it is not an Olympic discipline). And the Canadian Cycling Association naturally uses the same eligibility criteria as the UCI. Michelle Dumaresq has been open about her sex reassignment since she started competing in 2001, and her participation in women's mountain biking is perfectly legal. In fact, it would almost certainly be illegal to try to stop her.

Dumaresq's story is pretty fascinating, actually, and worth a read. Here's a long piece in Outside Online, describing how she was "discovered" Free-riding in BC in 1999, and her subsequent struggle to gain acceptance from her Canadian rivals. She has also been covered several times in Sports Illustrated, and you can read her story in her own words here. She is also the subject of a recent Canadian documentary film titled (did you guess?) One Hundred Percent Woman.

Of course Dumaresq's openness about her sex reassignment creates an incredibly complex and difficult issue for her competitors. Namely, is it fair that a sex-reassigned female is allowed to compete against athletes who were born women? I talked about it with my wife, who was a varsity rower in university, and her opinion was that Dumaresq's advantages were unfair. I suspect that the majority of female athletes would instinctively agree, and from Schroeter's verbal comments I do not get the sense that she feels more resentment about it than most. Many of Dumaresq's Canadian teammates have been less than warm to her, to say the least. According to those who know Schroeter (including her father), Schroeter and Dumaresq are at least respectful acquaintances, if not friends. By all accounts, Schroeter has struggled with this issue without getting personal, until now.

And, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that there's a 100% Pure Man behind this circus. Schroeter's boyfriend, John Starcevic (also a downhill racer), has confessed to setting Schroeter up in Whistler. After Starcevic posted an apology to "anyone who was offended" on a Canadian Cyclist forum, an editor posted this e-mail he had received from Starcevic. I added the emphasis, and deleted a few irrelevant bits, but the rest of this is 100% Pure manly man:

befor you guys and gals start beaking off about something you know nothing about you should learn the facts. Danika nor her sponsers knew anything of the shirt. If you were there you would have seen that i, a male name:John Starcevic ran on stage and put the shirt on her. I caught her off Gaurd and told her to take off her jersey, when she Questioned me i told her to just do it. I basically betrayed the six years of trust that we had built up. She was extreamly embarrest and angry. I chose to use her to make my stand. it is pathetic how fast people will jump on someone with out knowing the facts. … [more about how Schroeter is being unfairly blamed] … as far as knowlage on Transgenders you read a quote and its the truth to you. What have you done on your own to find info on transgenders. I have gone to see Michelle do her speach on why she chos her path, I have talked to other transgenders with well over half believing what Michelle is doing is wrong. I have also Scedualed appointment and talked to other specialists on the subject most who said they nor anyone else could prove if a transgender had an advantage or a disadvantage. … [tangent about how poorly the Canadian Cycling Association treats the downhill discipline] … I hope you are happy that after all the embarresment i put Danika threw you jumped all over her befor knowing the facts.
Joe Louis and the 100% Pure white heavyweight champion of the world

It seems that Mr. Starcevic has spent a considerable amount of time and effort researching the issue, and he should be commended for that — but I can't help asking myself why he cares so much. It's not like he has to compete against Dumaresq. Except for attention. And as far as making a stand goes, that usually requires putting your own reputation and status at risk. Not your girlfriend's. At any rate, I don't think that this particular act is a valid political statement, although some would like to frame it that way. You play the game in the categories that are provided; you don't get to make up your own categories just so that you can call yourself a champion.

But I'd like to leave this incident behind, and get back to the bigger issue of fairness. The root of the problem here is that the categories we use in sports are binary. Either you're a woman, or you're a man. Real life, unfortunately, doesn't really follow that model.

When I went to the Olympics in 1996, all female competitors had to submit to a gender verification test. A buccal swab was taken from each athlete and subjected to a DNA-based test for detection of Y-chromosomal material. I was struck by the statistics I found in this excellent article about the history of gender verification in sport. In 1996, samples were taken from 3387 female athletes. Eight of those — more than 1 in 500 — "failed" their gender test. All eight of the women were certified as females and permitted to compete at the Olympics. In other words, their gender verification test results were ruled to be false positives.

Seven of these eight women had androgen insensitivity syndrome. I'm not a medical doctor, but from what I understand, a person with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) is born with normal female external genitalia even though she has XY sex chromosomes. She develops as a female because a mutation in the androgen receptor gene makes her insensitive to the effects of testosterone. There are other medical conditions that can lead a "born female" athlete to test positive for Y chromosomal material, but AIS appears to be the most common.

Jesse Owens and the 100% Pure Aryan Olympic champion

This doesn't have anything to do with Danika Schroeter, really, except to underline the often-ignored fact that it is not trivial to define a test that categorizes everybody as either a woman or a man. A woman with CAIS may have inguinal testes, but her body has no ability to use the testosterone that they produce. Other people have partial AIS, meaning that they have "overmasculinized" external female genitalia, and some people with partial AIS have "undermasculinized" external male genitalia. Michelle Dumaresq went through puberty with testes, but hasn't had them for ten years, and in fact receives the female hormones artificially that Danika Schroeter's body produces naturally.

So what percent pure woman do we assign to all these cases?

Obviously, by 1996 rules, Michelle Dumaresq would test positive for male genetic material in the IOC's gender verification test. But it turns out that 1996 was the last summer Olympic games where gender verification testing was performed. At the end of 2003, an ad-hoc committee convened by the IOC Medical Commission issued a consensus on the issue of sex reassignment and sporting competition. The statement (PDF) and accompanying Expanatory Note (PDF) included the following recommendations:

  • Any individuals undergoing SRS before puberty should be regarded as members of the reassigned sex.
  • Any individuals undergoing SRS after puberty should be eligible for competition as members of the reassigned sex if: surgical changes have been completed, including gonadectomy at least two years ago; legal recognition of the reassigned sex has been granted by the authorities; and hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages.
Mark Tewksbury and the 100% Pure heterosexual Olympic champion

You might read the committee's report and interpret it as an argument that gender-related advantages completely disappear over time — perhaps as short as two years' time. It doesn't really say that, though; it talks about "minimizing" the advantages. Going through puberty as a hormonal male means that boys, on average, grow up bigger and stronger. It also means that they get treated like boys throughout their childhood, which might lead to a big difference in athletic ability as an adult. It seems unlikely to me that either of these advantages is completely erased by SRS.

But even if we admit that Michelle Dumaresq has an advantage over her competitors, so what? The fact is that some humans have physical and psychological advantages over others. Is the unfairness of Dumaresq's advantage so overwhelming that she should be barred from competing against other women? What would be fair to Michelle Dumaresq? As you think about that, consider this: Michelle Dumaresq gets beaten in races all the time. By 100% Pure women. Who were never men. In fact, outside of Canada, she has never been on an international podium. Her best-ever finish in a World Cup downhill was a ninth-place finish in 2005. I would argue that whatever "unfair" advantage she retains from having been a man ten years ago is small compared to the "natural" advantages that all elite athletes have over the general population. I would bet that Danika Schroeter is taller, stronger, and more aggressive than the average woman, too — and that's part of the reason why she's a good downhill racer.

Let's look at this another way. Let's consider SRS as a performance-enhancing method. Would it be banned under the WADA Code? As we know, WADA uses a two-out-of-three criterion for determining whether a substance or method is prohibited. If it is performance-enhancing, then it is prohibited if it is either (a) bad for your health, or (b) contrary to the spirit of sport. SRS, unless it was done specifically for the purpose of joining and winning sporting competitions, doesn't fall into either of these categories.

And even if it was determined that SRS was contrary to the spirit of sport, what would be a just punishment? Just suppose that Michelle Dumaresq had been born a woman, but was given testosterone injections all through puberty and into her twenties. And suppose that she admitted that to the CCA, so that they suspended her for a doping violation. What would happen to her? Well, in two years — an interesting coincidence, no? — she would be eligible for competition again. And she wouldn't be told that she had to race with the men.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"She" is a CHEATER. People who were born males have no business in woman sports.