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Binary Vision: Sex Difference and the Reproduction of Ignorance at the Olympic Games

Wed, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Beacon G


Scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) have shown that the corollary of knowledge production is its nonproduction, often termed nonknowledge or ignorance. In order to understand these processes of nonproduction, a variety of scholars have focused their attention at the institutional level: the role of the state, corporate interests, and the enterprise of academia in promoting particular research agendas while disabling the pursuit of others. In this paper I consider the relationship of these institutional processes to the broader public uptake of knowledge and nonknowledge. Focusing on the controversy that erupted at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 over the right of women athletes with naturally elevated testosterone to compete in the female category, I consider how particular ideas about sex difference – as binary, biological, and distinct from gender – travel within the track-and-field world, particularly at its most elite level.

I present findings from 30 interviews with athletes and coaches who participated in track-and-field at the Games, representing a variety of English-speaking countries. The majority of their accounts reveal pervasive ignorance in the elite track-and-field community about the complexity of sex difference, intersex, and the role of testosterone in shaping athletic performance. Using the terminology of Frickel and colleagues (2010), I identify at least two forms of ignorance: negative knowledge, or knowledge considered not worth pursuing, and nescience, or a lack of knowledge about the unknown. These are interrelated: athletes and coaches are both unaware that there has been scientific resistance to testosterone-based eligibility policies for women, and they simultaneously elect not to seek out further information to better understand the issues at play. Key international sports governing bodies play a key role, including the International Olympic Committeee (IOC) and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), by institutionalizing a culture of sex-as-binary and failing to provide a balanced and accessible account of the relevant scientific issues. However, athletes and coaches also actively produce this culture and shape the actions of their governing bodies by continuing to circulate, often through very informal interactions and engagement with social media, particular notions of “fairness” as it relates to sex difference.

Crucially, the social and institutional reproduction of ignorance occurs specifically in relation to the scientific dimensions of the issue, and not its moral or ethical ones. The interviews suggest that the English-speaking world of track-and-field is grappling with how to reconcile contemporary trends in gender politics, including the recognition and legal gains of the intersex and transgender movements, with a rigid binary system of categorization that is presumed derived from nature rather than a social system of gender. Here ignorance serves to maintain the status quo. I conclude by considering the implications of this research for theories of ignorance and nonknowledge within STS, particularly in terms of how the social and institutional reproduction of ignorance is gendered.


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