|Photo from iamkorean.|
Park expressed her feelings via social media:
My heart aches and it is humiliating. I've been through gender tests many times and competed in the World Cup and the Olympics. I know these people are trying to destroy me…In the past, I would have thrown my hands up and left, but I've worked so hard to this point, and I will not give up so easily.Luckily the Korean Football Association stood up for Park refusing to test her gender merely based on her success. The Association contended that her gender* was tested in 2004 when she was selected for the Olympic team, which was deemed sufficient. The mayor of Seoul has also publicly tweeted that he will defend Park and her human rights.
According to the University of Toronto's Centre for Sport Policy Studies sex testing and naked inspections of female athletes dates back to the 1960's and was performed by the "international track and field federation (IAAF), and at other multi-sport events such as the Commonwealth Games and the PanAmerican Games" (Donnelly & Donnelly, 2013).
After less than two years of naked examinations, the IAAF added chromosome testing to the examinations at the 1967 European Cup Track and Field Championships, and the IOC and other major games and international federations adopted chromosome testing (referred to by the IOC as "femininity testing") in 1968. Again, there were serious criticisms of the chromosome tests from both women athletes and the medical and scientific communities - but the IOC continued such tests for the next 30 years. The decision to discontinue the tests was made in 1998, when the critical outcry became too great to continue the tests at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. (Donnelly & Donnelly, 2013, p.6)Does this story have a happy ending? Yes and no. Applause goes to the Korean Football Association for defending Park but this story also demonstrates how archaic our idea of gender norms continues to be. For ten years no one cared what gender Park was because her mediocrity was irrelevant, yet when her skills improved she suddenly posed a threat to women and femininity. How sad is that notion? She is so good that she can't possibly be a woman. The policing of women's sex in sport is, as Park stated, humiliating. The desire to test a woman's sex, and thereby her femininity, debilitates both genders. It reinforces difference rather than appreciating the similarities that exist between sexes. I have written about the liminal space in which elite female athletes exist - too good for the girls, not good enough (or welcome) to play with the boys - but adding sex testing into the mix makes this space even more dangerous. This is a problem that lies only with female athletes. Would we ever test a male athlete who was so bad that we wanted to make sure that he was in fact a man? Or would we ever test a male athlete who is so dominant in his sport that others would question his sex? (Excuse me Mr. Brady but you have won too many SuperBowl titles, we are going to need to administer a sex test). I do not know what this other sex or gender would be but in our current, and extremely narrow, understanding of gender it is evident that being extremely successful fundamentally contradicts what it means to be a woman.
We often blame men for assuming that women are inherently less capable; however, this time the blame falls squarely on the (never too broad) shoulders of women. We hold each other back by believing and reinforcing all the lies that society bombards us with everyday, even though when asked directly if it is possible for a woman to be too talented I am confident that most, if not all women, would answer 'no'. If it is not conventionally possible for a woman to be too beautiful, too emotional, or too thin then how is it that a woman can be too strong, too athletic, or too talented? Maybe the next time we tell a little girl that she can do anything that a boy can do we should be courteous by qualifying early in life that tempering her aspirations and skills will help avoid arousing gender suspicion. When Park's fellow athletes challenged her gender they simultaneously admitted that there exists a limit on female possibility and that this boundary falls well short of masculine possibilities. So much for breaking down boundaries.
Note*: The CNN article reports the story as gender testing; however, it should be more accurately referred to as sex testing, whereby the genetic makeup of a person (e.g. testosterone levels and genitalia of male versus female) is questioned rather than the socially constructed and performative traits that we generally assign to the ideas of masculine and feminine.
Donnelly, P. & Donnelly, M.K. (2013). Sex Testing: Naked inspections and the Olympic Games - A correction to: The London 2012 Olympics - A gender equality audit. Centre for Sport Policy Studies Research Report. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.