One basic ethical concern in sports is creating fair categories of competition. Age is a non-controversial example of this: elementary school teams do not compete against high school teams because that would be unfair to the elementary school team. Size is also a relatively non-controversial example in boxing—a heavyweight fighter will generally have a significant advantage over a smaller fighter. But there is a challenge in developing a good principle of category fairness. After all, there are many factors that can provide one category of athletes an advantage over others that intuitively should not be the basis of categorizing athletes to create fair competition.
As an obvious example, some people naturally have anatomies and physiologies that give them an advantage over other athletes. To illustrate, a runner with an ideal body type for running and excellent genetics for speed and endurance will have a significant advantage over someone with a body type that is biomechanically terrible for running and whose genes lack those advantages. One could also consider psychological factors (such as determination) and even economic factors (which can affect diet, coaching, and available training time). While trying to adjust for these factors would make competition fairer, it does lead to a reductio ad absurdum: the ultimate in fairness would be for each person to be in their own category, competing against only themselves. That is, there would be no competition.
The other extreme would be to have no categories at all (somewhat of a state of nature scenario in sports): everyone competes with everyone regardless of such factors as age, gender, or weight. This could even be fair: everyone is competing without distinction and the best will emerge victorious. But this would also be absurd (and dangerous): imagine elementary school students playing tackle football against the Patriots. It can also be argued that this would be unfair: professional football players enjoy far too many advantages over elementary school football players. As Aristotle would say, the right approach lies in a mean between these two extremes: neither too many nor too few categories for fair competition.
One category that does seem reasonable in most sports is that of gender (to use the term very loosely). Males generally enjoy significant physical advantages relative to females and genderless competition would tend to result in males dominating sports. As an example, if the Olympic marathon had no gender categories, all the competing athletes would almost certainly be males. There would, of course, be exceptions at individual competitions—a female runner might handily beat all the males at a specific marathon. As such, a case can be made that gender categories in sports are fair. While this might seem like a simple matter, it is complicated.
There are world class women athletes, such as Caster Semenya, who have XY chromosomes. While there are many bad faith arguments made about this issue, one can have a good faith debate about the fairness of allowing women with XY chromosomes to compete with XX women—after all, there are some reasons to think that the XY chromosomes can provide an advantage that XX women lack. It must be noted that the performance of elite XY women athletes does not match that of elite male athletes and XX women athletes can outperform XY women athletes in competition.
The easy and obvious reply to concerns about XY women is to point out that this seems to be the only case where people are worried about genetic advantages in sports. Athletes do not get tested to see if they have advantageous genes (or anatomy and physiology) to determine if they can compete. For example, very tall basketball players have an edge over shorter players, and this has a genetic component—but they do not get banned because of that genetic feature. In fact, elite athletes probably enjoy a range of genetic advantages over other athletes—but they do not get banned from the sport even when they greatly exceed even other athletes in their performance.
It can be countered that there are grounds for concern about allowing XY women to compete as women. We have accepted the categories of male and female in sports as a division needed to ensure fair competition. It can be argued that XY women should be excluded from the female category in sports on the grounds that they do not qualify for inclusion. This, one might argue, is based on fairness: XY males are excluded from competing against XX females based on fairness because they do not belong in the female category and would have an unfair advantage. This reasoning can also be backed up by an analogy.
Imagine that Sam has been adopted and is just young enough to be able to play one year of little league before aging out. When he tries out for the little league team, he finds that his somewhat unusual size and strength give him an edge over the other kids—people notice that he seems to be about the size of kids a year older. Now imagine that the parents of another child think that something is up—so they hire an investigator to check into Sam’s background. The investigator finds out that there seems to have been a mistake in Sam’s records—he might be a year older than what the official documents say. While Sam and his parents have done nothing wrong intentionally, it would be unfair for Sam to compete against kids a year younger than him. As such, Sam should not be allowed to finish the season because he exceeds the age limit. While this argument does have some appeal, it does raise important concerns.
While I do agree that dividing athletes into the male and female categories can be warranted on the grounds of fairness, to simply assume that XY women are not females would be unwarranted. What is needed is a well developed and defended set of principles for sorting athletes into these categories. These principles would also need to be consistent and consistently applied.
Going back to the analogy with Sam, he seems to be just a large person of his claimed age. But the parents of the other child believe the evidence provided by their investigator—by their standard, Sam is too old to compete in little league and must be excluded on the grounds of fairness. While age is clearly an objective matter, this lack of certainty is intentional to make the analogy fit: while some believe that XY women are not women, this is a matter of which standards one accepts. Just as one would need to argue for which documentation to accept about Sam’s age, one must argue for the standards used to exclude or include people in the male/female categories in sports.
If it is decided that the distinction is based on genetics (which it seems to be) and that XY women must be excluded from the female category because they have an unfair advantage, then consistency would seem to require doing a genetic analysis of all athletes to discern if there are genes that yield a similar unfair advantage. If such genes do exist, then allowing people with them to compete with those without would be unfair. If we should exclude XY women based on their alleged advantage, then the same would apply to these other athletes—they would need to be excluded as well. If one says that this should be limited solely to XY and XX, then they would need to provide a principled argument for making this the only genetic distinction that matters. While one could make a practical appeal to the cost of testing; the same would also apply to the XY/XX cases—one must test a person to determine if a woman is XX or XY. And if there is a need to test for that, then there would seem to be a need to test for other genetic advantages.
One can also argue that the genetic advantages of top athletes are too diverse to identify and categorize—the XX/XY distinction is a simple one that allows the preservation of existing sports competition categories. There would also be degrees of advantage and sorting this all out would be needlessly complicated. But one could reply that we could create broad genetic categories analogous to age groups in sports. This could be countered by arguing that the distinctions and advantages are fuzzy and unclear—so why not let people compete without genetic testing and categorization? This would, of course, seem to also apply to XY women—while they might have some possible advantage over some XX women in sports, this does not seem to warrant creating a special category that excludes them from competing against other women. This does require accepting that the sharp and absolute male/female distinction that some people crave does not exist, that the boundaries are fluid and fuzzy—but this seems to reflect reality. While some might want “pure” Platonic concepts of male and female, we do not find them instantiated perfectly in this world. As such, XY women should be permitted to compete as women.