Ab-normal Athletes: Technomedical Productions of Gender, Sports, Fairness, and Doping


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Virginia Tech


Doping and anti-doping research laboratories are crucial sites for the production and reproduction of gender in sports. Such labs have, over time, constructed a multiplicity of gender categories through which to view and assess doping practice, but nevertheless, they consistently work hard to reproduce binary, hegemonic sex and gender categories. As part of their reproduction of the binary, I argue that technomedical researchers police gender and negotiate ethics within their research by “ab-normalizing” athletes. Ab-normalization refers to a process, adjunct to normalization, whereby gendered and racialized categories of deviance, and the means of policing such categories, are produced. Likewise, these technomedical researchers developed means of authenticating the hormonal gender of athletes. Authentication is a form of ab-normalization that represents the kind of policing that anti-doping researchers perform. It refers to the technomedical processes that produce and legitimate these hormonal gender states.

In order for technomedical researchers to do this work, they have had to negotiate ethical quandaries across different spaces. Such ethical negotiations have played an important role in shaping the direction, and thus gender possibilities, within this research. Specifically, I show how technomedical researchers often shifted ethical frames while performing their research, from a sports ethical frame to either an athletic performance research ethical frame or an anti-doping research ethical frame. The first of these is premised on notions of “fair play” while the second is guided by technomedical uncertainties regarding athletic performance and doping practices. The third ethical frame reconciles these two by producing “fair play” amongst competitors through the development of technomedical detection techniques that either catch or deter cheating athletes. This shifting of ethical frames highlights how these researchers were performing legitimate scientific research at the time and not the “immoral,” ethically dubious, research as it might appear to be from our current perspective.

To clarify my theoretical points on gender and ethics, I draw upon two cases. The first case deals with blood doping, which requires the withdrawal and subsequent re-infusion of blood into an athlete. The second case examines endogenous steroid use, particularly, androgenic anabolic “naturally” occurring steroids. These hormones aid in muscle production and recovery. Blood doping and endogenous steroid use are two key practices of sports doping. By deconstructing the science surrounding these two practices, I offer an alternative account of the doping debates from the more familiar accounts that explain the doping debates as a “cat and mouse game” between anti-doping researchers and athletes within which “doping” is often presented as a straightforward immoral act for the athletes.

By telling the story of how these technomedical researchers simultaneously produced gender categories, ethical categories, and technomedical processes, my alternative account positions these doping debates as competing, socio-historical, articulations of “fairness” bound to competing articulations of gender. I suggest that it is possible to re-imagine “fairness” from this alternative account. Specifically, we can imagine more equitable ways to allow the individuals that do not fit neatly into the binary gender system to compete “fairly” in sports.



abnormalization, Gender, doping, sports, ethics