According to research published in the Genetics In Medicine journal, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially mandated the practice of gender verification for female athletes as early as 1968. They claimed that this was implemented to prevent men masquerading as women with “unfair male-like advantages” from competing in women-only events.
Visual observation and gynecological examination were first used on a trial basis for sex determination but these processes were eventually replaced by laboratory-based genetic tests. However, there are several biological and genetic variations that can exist between the classifications of XX and XY — male or female differentiation. A study in Sports Medicine journal explains that this was highly discriminatory, especially against people who had intersex traits, which actually offered no competitive advantage in athletics.
One of the most prominent cases of sex verification in the past decades has been of Caster Semenya, a decorated middle-distance runner from South Africa. In 2009, Semenya won gold in 800 meters at the World Championships, setting the record for the year. Following her victory, her sex was brought into question, especially since she had improved her previous 800m time by four seconds in just a month. World Athletics, formerly called the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), asked her to take a sex verification test. Although she was later cleared to keep her medal and continue competing in women’s competitions, claims were spread that Semenya had some intersex traits.
Prominent leaders, activists, and commentators came out in support of Semenya, affirming that the controversy was inherently racist and was an invasion of her privacy and human rights.
When the authorities are sexist
Closer home, it was Dutee Chand who was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games contingent and the Asian Games after the Athletic Federation of India stated that hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to compete as a female athlete. Hyperandrogenism is described as excessive testosterone in the female body.
It was made clear that the decision was made in compliance with International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations on “female hyperandrogenism”, which was designed to address a perceived advantage for female athletes with high androgen levels.
The underlying sexism in these regulations becomes evident when contrasted with the fact that no such testing exists for male competitors. There have been several instances where men have naturally occurring physical advantages which have never been used against them while allowing them to compete.
For example, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a wingspan that is a few inches longer than his height whereas in average humans both height and wingspan are the same. A study conducted on his body also revealed that his body produces considerably less lactic acid compared to the average person giving him a strong advantage. He is also reportedly double-jointed, which allows him to bend at the ankle more than other swimmers. So, why is Phelps allowed to leverage his anatomical differences when Semenya and others are forced to suppress theirs?
Under the current International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules, female athletes with higher testosterone levels are supposed to regulate their condition by taking hormone suppressants. Semenya has maintained that these medications make her feel constantly sick resulting in abdominal pain. Earlier this year, she filed an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights.
Another alarming case was that of Annet Negesa, a Ugandan former middle-distance runner who specialized in the 800m. Due to a difference of sex development, she had high levels of testosterone in her body. Under rules set by the IAAF, she had to reduce it and underwent a gonadectomy to remove the internal testes, a procedure she was not aware of. Poor aftercare and mental damage as a result of this effectively ended Negesa’s career.
Suppressing natural anatomical differences
This year’s Olympics too has its fair share of sex-testing-related controversy. Namibian track and field stars Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have been banned from competing in the 400m race as both their natural testosterone levels have been deemed too high. The 18-year-olds were on the fast track to medals and now their dreams have been cut short, just like many before them.
“There are certainly a number of factors that affect athletic performance and testosterone is certainly only one of those factors,” Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Loughborough University tells the media. But there exists little evidence to strongly substantiate the correlation between athletic performance and testosterone levels.
In a media report, Richard Holt, professor of endocrinology at the University of Southampton explains that the male range of testosterone can be anywhere between 10 to 25 nanomoles per liter. And it’s not necessary that a person with a level of 25 will outperform someone who is at 10. The same applies for women, he reiterates, where testosterone levels alone don't contribute to athletic advantage.
From women to intersex people, these regulations seem fixated on suppressing athletes from marginalized genders from participating at an elite level. It is a personal affront to question the sex of athletes and force them to take medication to alter naturally occurring hormones in their bodies. “We are all created differently, with different purposes. So you can't compare me with someone else. It's really unfair," Masilingi tells the media about her intention to fight for the right to compete.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)