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I’m not a fan of the Olympics, but it does come with one unambiguous plus: the quiet, subtle activism it promotes.

As much as I like the boldface, capital-A activism which occurred in the 1936 and 1968 Games, there’s a powerful case to be made for claiming to be apolitical yet still engaging in simple awareness campaigns.

As The New York Times notes, [Fu Yuanhui had] immediately drawn polite speculation of a “stomachache” from an interviewer after she was seen “crouching” and “grimacing in pain.” Okay, so we’ve got a 20-year-old woman crouching and grimacing in pain, yes, let’s diagnose that as a “stomachache.”

But Fu wasn’t having it. Instead, she candidly explained, “It’s because I just got my period yesterday, so I’m still a bit weak and really tired. But this isn’t an excuse for not swimming well.” It was a groundbreaking moment in Olympic history, a rare acknowledgment that women get periods and periods, as women know, can really affect your day.

Over here in North America, we have quite a few hang-ups over women’s bodies and how they work. In China, though, those anxieties are dialed up to 11.

Taboos around menstruation have been difficult to break. And in Fu’s country, tampons are not manufactured, and ads for period products are banned from primetime and lunchtime viewing because they’re considered “disgusting.” The country’s first domestically-produced tampon is set to go on sale later this month — 80 years after tampons were introduced in the U.S.

A 2015 survey reports that only 2 percent of Chinese women use tampons — an astonishing statistic when you consider the powerful performances of Chinese women in athletic competition.The Times says that number is so low “because it is widely, and falsely, believed that [tampons] can rob a woman of her virginity.” And on Weibo, one user summed up the shock of Fu’s admission by saying, “Someone accused Fu of lying, asking how she could have gone in the water on her period. Chinese people have prejudices about tampons – as a woman over 30, I’d been ignorant, and full of fear, about tampons until now too.”

Merely acknowledging menstruation can be a subversive act. It leads to curiousity, which leads to education, which leads to a gentle erosion of the associated taboo.

Another form of quiet activism is aimed at smashing the gender binary.

At the European Athletics Championship in 1966, the IAAF subjected female competitors to a “nude parade” past three gynecologists. This was because, as Life magazine reported, “there had been persistent speculation through the years about women who turn in manly performances.” That same year female athletes at the Commonwealth Games had to undergo gynecological exams to prove their sex. British pentathlete Mary Peters would later refer to it as “the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known in my life.”

For there to be “manly” performances, there must be a sharp divide between men and women. You must be able to point to inherent inferiority at some task, or a physiological difference. The “inherent inferiority” approach is very problematic, as the whole point of world records is to encourage how far we can push the human body, so governing bodies have largely stuck to physiological metrics. After that humiliating nude parade, the International Association of Athletic Federations tried using karyotyping, but… 

Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska, for instance, was summarily dismissed from sport in 1967 because she had “one chromosome too many.” The IAAF nullified all of her victories, struck her name from the record books, and rescinded her medals, including the gold and bronze from the 1964 Olympics, all because of a naturally occurring condition that probably had little bearing on her success. At 21 years old, her athletic career was over. “It’s a dirty and stupid thing to do to me,” she said at the time. “I know what I am and how I feel.”

Then there are women with XY chromosomes, such as Spanish hurdler María José Martínez-Patiño. She successfully challenged her 1985 disqualification on the grounds that she also has androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition in which her body cannot respond to testosterone, either natural or synthetic.

… it turns out that’s a poor marker for gender. Both the International Olympic Committee and the IAAF stopped routine karyotyping two decades ago (mostly). Instead, they check testosterone levels. Except….

Based on no compelling or relevant evidence, IAAF decided that women whose testosterone levels passed a certain mark—from naturally produced hormone, not from “doping”—would be banned from sport unless they took surgical or pharmaceutical steps to reduce their levels. Surgically, according to reports, the procedures have involved removing the gonads and part of the clitoris. A higher-than-average production of testosterone can lengthen—or virilize—the clitoris, but how the length of this structure, which is homologous to the penis, affects track-and-field performance is unclear. If it matters, why aren’t we measuring men and holding their genitalia and gonads to some standard for eligibility?

Ovaries can, because of conditions including polycystic ovarian syndrome, produce more-than-average testosterone. Women whose gonads contain both testicular and ovarian tissue also can make more than the average amount of testosterone, and it’s this group that the IAAF particularly targeted. The adrenal glands also produce androgens, and in the absence of an enzyme to convert them to other hormones, their accumulation at higher-than-average levels can be virilizing, too.

…. some women have more testosterone than others, a few have more than men, and some are partly or completely insensitive to it. There’s little proof that excess testosterone leads to a performance gain; the IAAF, when challenged on this, could only argue it made a 1-3% difference in performance. 

Even if there was a significant difference, should we care? We ban athletes who inject substances into themselves on the grounds that it’s an artificial performance enhancement, yet we permit athletes to train in low-oxygen environments because that’s somehow a “natural” enhancement. But if we allow the latter, why are we objecting to people who were naturally born with a condition that enhances their performance? 

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the double-standard in the room.

Would the IAAF ask a man to give up his gonads and remove half of his penis to be allowed to compete, simply because that man naturally produces more testosterone than the average male? The IAAF doesn’t even appear to have pursued the question of relative natural testosterone levels among male athletes. What if an athlete makes more growth hormone than average? And no one has asked Michael Phelps to reduce his arm length or foot size or required gymnasts, divers, skiers and skaters to rearrange their inner ear anatomy to put them on par with the average vestibular system.

It’s nonsensical, sexist and vile to require women to literally have body parts removed or undergo harmful drug treatments as a way to diminish their natural athletic advantages.

But if that’s nonsensical, then it’s equally nonsensical to insist intersex people have their body parts removed to conform to societal norms of what genitals should look like. It’s equally nonsensical to say the anatomy you were born with is synonymous with the gender you behave as. All those thinkpieces about gender testing in sports are quietly chipping away at our assumptions of a strict gender binary, on a global level.

Keep that in mind, next time you’re eye-rolling over the pomp and cost.

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