[estimated reading time 13 minutes]

Monday 8 April 2019

An open letter to the International Olympic Committee

Regarding the question of social gender and the theory of human sexual dimorphism

Dear Members,

The theory of human sexual dimorphism is an idea whose time has come and one whose time has passed. In many ways, statistically speaking and from a perceptual obviousness that cannot be challenged, it is a beautifully simply solution to the age-old questions of who and what I, the self, am. What I present here is in some ways a statistical argument but I present no statistics. These numbers are open to manipulation and I present only a methodology that I believe to be sound but I invite you to perform the specific calculations for yourself, as I have done, so as to avoid the bias that is inherent in using numbers to form arguments. I present arguments that you have already heard and, perhaps, some that you have not yet been made aware of. What I offer is not a solution but a pathway to compromise that avoids the inherent conflict and disconnection between societal progress, social awareness and the amazing human achievement that is sports and physical excellence.

The question of biological sex and its inherent incompatibility with gender identity is one whose presence and discussion is tearing apart the whole world of sports. Some individuals decry the end of “women’s sports” and others declare that international sporting organizations, including your committee, must lead the way on social change to end the centuries, the millennia of exclusive policies of segregation that allow bigotry and cultural xenophobia to flourish and to perpetuate a hierarchy of gender identity and disrespectful competition as veils for an underlying misogyny. Neither of these positions is wrong but it is an error to see them as opposing arguments without common ground, if and only if both sides are stripped of their aggression and hatred.

I will begin with a declaration of my position so as to avoid potential confusion. I am not, nor have I ever been, a serious competitive athlete. I have the experience of amateur sports, as most humans do, where I was a solid but unremarkable track participant and where I was able to make up for my lack of physical abilities with my understanding of applied mathematics in racquet sports. I give this not to demonstrate empathy but to show my simple lack of potential for gain from either side of the argument. I am not in any way connected with professional sports and, although true objectivity is a myth of the misunderstanding mind, I approach that objectivity in this matter to whatever degree is possible by existing as an outsider, not to the debate on gender identity but to that of competitive sports. I am, in fact, a teacher and that is the position from which my perspective is informed and it is from the place of an educator of young people, who I see divided in their loyalties to what they see as two opposing and fundamentally uncompromising arguments that I feel compelled to write this letter.

We must address the question of gender, in short, before we discuss the question of physical mechanics. Gender is purely a social construction. It is not sex nor is it hormone or chromosome quantity or diversion. It is a performance, not in the sense that it is necessarily artificial but that it is selected, trained and is built from identifiable elements of expectation and comprehension within an environment of human comprehension. Put another way, what it means to present as female or male are two extreme ends of a spectrum but not an independent spectrum, one that is defined by the society it acts in. To give an example,  not for its completeness but for its obvious truth, I invite you to take the American stereotypical view (I emphasize the stereotypical view, as we are all aware that this is certainly not the viewpoint of all Americans but it is present enough in popular culture to be an obvious point for comparison, not a judgment of the American perspective on gender identity) of what it means to be “manly” or “womanly”. At one end of this spectrum, there is the rugged outdoorsy person clothed in red plaid and heading into the forest to shoot an elk, whose antlers will be mounted above a fireplace. On the other, there is a beautifully-wrapped human package combining outward sexual modesty with perceived desirability with perfectly-applied lipstick and glossy hair above a just-revealing-enough dress whose actions speak of availability combined with passivity. These are not, as you may have already guessed, even close to what it means to be a modern American of any gender identity. They are extremes on a particular spectrum and their presence in the psyche of popular culture function more as a premise for comedy than any form of reality. You will not find these fictitious people on the streets of New York, Seattle, San Francisco or Houston. You will not find them in the forests, wandering the deserts or working the ranches scattered across the country. Yet, in their absence, you will find evidence of existence of pieces of their identities scattered throughout many, not in a complete sense but as individual traits. They are the goalposts of measurement that are used within American culture as to how “manly” or how “womanly” someone is. They are what are meant when someone says “man up” or “don’t be such a woman”. These are statements full of hatred but they are also built on a cultural understanding of these stereotypes of what the identities of man and woman inherently symbolize — strength or weakness, activity or passivity, making decisions or accepting them, being sexually dominant or submissive. In their very inaccuracy is their usefulness to a comparative, adversarial perspective on gender. To understand just how culturally-determined this is, please take this spectrum and apply it to the understanding of masculine and feminine traits in another culture. I will not presume to describe the extremes of the stereotypes in these other cultures but I expect that each of you has enough familiarity with at least one of them that I shall mention to make a comparison significant to demonstrate the point that this is not a fixed scale but a dramatically-shifting spectrum. The cultures to which I invite you to compare the American stereotype to are those of the following countries, only for the purposes of example, not of judgment, as it is not that they have a better approach, simply one that is obviously different enough to dispel notions of objective cultural relevance of the gender question – China, Japan, Korea, France, Russia, Uganda, New Zealand. I rest my case as to the fluctuating nature of the spectrum of gender identity here.

We must now move to the question of physical dimorphism in humans but first we may wish to address the question of generalized sexual dimorphism in animals, specifically in mammals. When we teach basic biological science, the question of sexual dimorphism arises nearly instantly. It is, perhaps, the first question that one must answer to say anything important about any species, human or otherwise. Is the species sexually differentiated? Animals, with a few notable exceptions that are irrelevant to this discussion, generally present obvious sexually-dimorphic characteristics. Mammals, those who give live-birth, among other characteristics, do so through the union of a male and female in copulation, producing through the combination of egg and sperm (in time) live young — babies, if you will. It takes both the male and the female sex organs, the male and the female genetic material to build that new life. There are physical traits that are commensurate with these sexually-dimorphic realities that are unmistakable and beyond question – a penis and a vagina, ovaries and testicles simply to note two comparative groups. While these are not the only markers of sexual dimorphism, they are blatantly obvious ones and, while surgery may alter their presence and appearance, their physical nature without surgery is not in question. To deny that mammals are sexually dimorphic would be an unfounded error. That being said, this is neither relevant to the question of gender identity nor to that of sports competition in the least and I intend to demonstrate this disconnection shortly.

There is more than physically-demonstrable sex characteristics to differentiate those of those who contain particular hormonal mixtures and chromosome states. It has certainly been presented to you that there is a question of hormonal quantity, in particular that of testosterone, that defines male and female in a sexually-dimorphic species like the human. This is certainly the case but there is a wide band of disagreement resulting from the argument and it is, sadly, often dramatically misinformed and based on questions of athlete-doping for the purpose of performance enhancement rather than that of sexual differentiation. There have been proposals to your committee and other sports organizations that declare that those individuals who identify long-term as female and whose testosterone concentrations are below a certain concentration (some argue for 10nM, some 5nM, others for different amounts but they are arbitrary at best), should be permitted to compete in sexually-dimorphic sporting competitions. What these arguments miss, either by design or by accident, is that the current level of testosterone defines little in terms of absolute performance, only in terms of time-specific abilities. There is nothing, not chemical, not physical, not surgical that may be done to reverse the development procedure in its entirety, of a body. Decades of increased testosterone levels between birth and adulthood will create a proportionally stronger body, not compared to other individuals but compared to that body that would have otherwise existed – we are never comparing one person with another but only that person with an alternate version of the physical self, as that is all that is possible in these matters. Chromosome and hormone functions will decide developmental questions from early (as early as three months in some cases, perhaps earlier) in fetus growth, continuing throughout life. To shift these is to change future development, not past development. While muscles in a lowered testosterone environment will almost certainly become weaker, muscles in a starvation environment will do the same, as will muscles in a reduced-gravity environment and neither of those two situations is proposed as a factor for sex-status judgment for competitive sports. The truth of the matter is, simply put, that nature cannot be reversed; its future path may be changed to resemble a different history but that is by active compensation rather than rewriting the history of an individual’s body. While it is unquestionably important to ensure fairness through the measurement of naturally-occurring chemicals in the body compared to those artificially-introduced by drugs, this is not a test for performative gender nor for biological sex traits and its use as such is of questionable scientific or social merit at best.

There is the question, then, of statistical viability. As I have mentioned, I will present no numeric evidence here, as this is open to interpretation and selection bias. I invite each of you to take the data available to you historically and perform calculations as you see fit to verify what I state here. There is, as many have presented to you, vast overlap on each measurement criteria of determination of male and female performance. I speak here of developmentally-typical individuals. There will always be extremes that fall outside what I will give as general tendencies due to disordered growth and this is not a judgment of those individuals, only a statement of the norm, statistically-speaking. The tallest and shortest of humans may be grouped so that the vast majority of the tallest will be men, the vast majority of the shortest will be women. The strongest and weakest of humans may also be grouped so that the extremes of the strong will be men and the extremes of the weak will be women. This is easily verifiable and, in many ways, goes without saying. What is left, however, is that the overwhelming majority of humans fall in a medium area where height varies across a wide spectrum, where strength ranges dramatically. The overlap is not simply a small center of the population but the vast majority, where an unremarkable height or strength range for female and male are center-shifted but whose extremities, where they do not overlap, are minuscule by comparison to the overlapping quantity. This argument is often made and it is undeniably true but it is, in a word, irrelevant to the world of international competitive sports. It may be a valid argument for sports at the amateur level but, even there, it is somewhat questionable for many reasons, the most obvious one of which is the fairness of comparative training regimes across divergent body types. Why, you may ask, is this irrelevant, but I believe you likely already have the answer in mind. Without a doubt, those athletes that are competing at a level that you are deliberating on are not in the middle region. They are, by definition, the extremes of important measures, such as strength, endurance, capacity for training improvement and fitness. They are predominantly, as you will likely already know, male in any objective sense of physical excellence. This is, I caution, not a judgment of males as being better than females but a simple statement of the statistical data that may only be interpreted to show that those on the upper extreme of sports performance will undoubtedly, in a numerically-balanced population, be male. This is partly due to hormones during development but it is certainly not due to hormone concentrations on the day of the competition, much as having a good breakfast may make a minuscule difference to performance but the question of spending ten years being malnourished compared to eating a healthy diet will most certainly have dramatic results, all other things being equal, on almost every aspect of an individual’s physical ability.

We cannot deny the presence of sexual dimorphism in terms of these physical characteristics, many of which make substantial difference in the question of sports performance. To attempt to do so would be lunacy and riddled with self-contradiction. There are excellent arguments for gender inclusion but a mistaken impression that there is no biological difference in the physical bodies of biological male and female would be an unmistakable error and one not in keeping with the scientific approach to sports that we continue to adhere to as an example of fairness and understanding.

What can be denied, however, is that sexual dimorphism is the deciding factor. It is one of many factors – environment, nutrition, training practice, sleep, mental health, genetic profile to name but a few others whose importance may be less or greater than sex traits but whose presence is undeniable, among many others of varying levels of importance to the outcome. This is not to say that those of varying gender identities must be allowed to compete in sexually-divergent sports but simply to point out that sexual divergence is not an accurate means of differentiating the categorization of competition in sports.

It is a historical generalization for the sake of simplicity and nothing more. To argue that men and women should be held to different competitive standards is as insulting to those who compete in the female category as to that of the male, demonstrating an impossibility of equality that is, in a word, disgusting. This is perhaps even more extreme in group sports (ice hockey, soccer, football), where the assumption that a group of females and a group of males cannot be holistically competitive with measurably-unpredictable results divergent enough for fair sports practice. That aside, however, the notion of using obviously-visible sexual dimorphism as the deciding characteristic for sports is not in keeping with the level of scientific understanding nor that of cultural responsibility that is inherent in the notion of sports as an egalitarian system of competition through merit rather than predetermined outcome. Sports are held up as the pinnacle of self-determination and rightly so, except in this area of sexual determinism and it is here that we must question this and overturn its legacy for the future of our children and our culture.

It is not because I am female that I do well or badly in physical exercise. It is not because I am male that I do well or badly as a runner, as a hockey player, as a tennis player, as a skier. My sex will undoubtedly determine some of my physical characteristics and yours, as they will everyones. It is through environmental change, training and myriad other considerations that we all work for improvement of our bodies in the service of physical performance and excellence thereof. But to use a loose determiner such as sexual dimorphism when what we are really measuring is a group of other characteristics is both confusing and confused in logic and in social responsibility. We are being seen through the lens of society for the first time in the history of human society, in that we must no longer hide behind the notion that physical sex and individual identity are the same — that they are even linked in any meaningful way other than through cultural expectation is no longer understood to be more than stereotype or trained-in performance and the politics of inclusion. As the example to human excellence, fairness and inclusion that the Olympic Games has been held up, rightly, to be, this cultural hatred must no longer be preserved within the games.

The only true measure of fairness in competition is that which is already, to a large degree in many cases, employed in many sports already. It is often used in combination with sex traits but on its own carries far more socially-responsible outcomes without the necessity to give up on competitive fairness or a motivation for excellence. In horse-racing and boxing, for example, physical size and weight are the determiners for competition. We already, especially in many areas of track competition, have all competitors in the same field – take, for example, the idea that in a marathon, all runners run the same course (approximately) simultaneously and their scores, in this case their times, are compared and grouped afterward. To apply this to other sports is not trivial but it is, I would propose, a necessary compromise. This would entail an end to the sex trait selection of male and female but would not include all athletes in a general comparative pool that would exclude based on physical characteristics, rather open the field to a greater degree of sport excellence. As an example, we can take the winter sport of ice hockey, one that has been a notable part of the culture of my childhood and, if this is less familiar to you, you may use any example that you like from your own background and the result would be similar. The typical professional “male” hockey team is built from those who are of large stature and high strength. There are exceptions to this and there is variation between the expected norm for those in goal, defense or offense. This variation is obvious and I need not describe it in detail. A “female” hockey team, by comparison, is generally of smaller individuals with less strength but who play what is often termed a “finesse” game compared to the more brute-force style of their male counterparts. This is neither judgment nor should it be. And to suggest that these two approaches should be meshed would result in either an extreme of brutality on the ice or technical mastery that would easily be destroyed by physical aggression – neither state of competition would be self-sustaining or, to be just as to the point, enjoyable either to play or to watch. What I would suggest, which I am certainly neither first nor the last so to do, is to maintain these divisions and add several others for varying types of physical and stylistic variations. Groupings with varying degrees of physical contact being permissible, for example, varying potentials for weight, height and other types of size, muscle density, speed determiners and so forth. This would result in perhaps five different competitive models within the overarching discipline of competitive ice hockey. This generalization may then be applied to other sports – in track, for example, it would be similar to the differentiation between 100m, 200m and 5000m. Different athletes would compete in different events categorized by a divergence of physical characteristics and intent (physical characteristics being height classification, weight group, muscle density and similar, intent being, in this case, the distance but in others, potentially, the style of play, level of physical contact, level of interpersonal aggression compared to technical skill, point scoring compared to physical confrontation).

I present this publicly for the thoughts of all but directly as a response to what I have seen as a global phenomenon of divergent support from youth on both sides of an issue that I see as neither necessitating confrontation nor requiring absolute adherence without compromise. What I have spoken of here neither destroys the ability of those who identify as women, men, or otherwise to compete, to compete together and to compete fairly, nor capitulates to the demand to include all in a single competition where fairness would be eliminated by physical determinism but the performance of social equality would be upheld. In keeping with the necessity for social understanding and inclusion of all, regardless of gender identity, classification by physical measurement and intent of action is, from my perspective, the only possible solution that neither overturns social progress nor denigrates the value of advances in inclusion in sports that have been made since the modern Olympic Games were begun more than a century ago, one of the most socially-inclusive forces that we have yet seen even as early as the beginning of the twentieth century when the extremes segregation by race and sex were norms throughout the world but those of various races and genders competed on the field together before the eyes of a world not yet willing to embrace equality.

In furthering the advances both of sports and society, I pledge in hope that progress will be made in the games to come both in the immediate future and into the centuries that follow.

In the spirit of cooperation and understanding, I submit this humbly to you in thanks for your thoughts,

Avi Sato

share on social media...
thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.