Long before the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, sport has been known as a man’s game. Manhood was proved through exertion and demonstration of strength and skill. In the 19th century, once women breached the masculine-centered world of sport, their involvement was continuously questioned and rejected. Medical experts even suggested that women should not exercise for fear of damaging their reproductive system and that to have muscles would be to appear ‘mannish,’ and therefore unattractive to others.
As decades passed, women rose in the ranks as elite athletes and proved much more than adequate at all that their male counterparts could do. Unfortunately, there was a very strict definition of what it was to be male and female and the success of the women athletes began to be questioned.
In the past, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has subjected female competitors to a ‘nude parade’ past gynecologists to prove their gender before participating, solidifying the notion that athletes who identified as female could be questioned and tested in order to ensure they were not too ‘manly’ so as to have an advantage over other women.
In 1967, after outrage rose regarding the humiliating nude parades, the IAAF turned to lab-based chromosome testing, which was done by swapping the inside of every female athlete’s cheek. Only an XX chromosome result would ensure the athlete could compete. Anything else meant a definitive end to a career as a female athlete. In the 1964 Olympic Games, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was dismissed and nullified all of her victories all because she had “one chromosome too many” – which would have very little, if any, impact on her performance as an athlete.
There are numerous other occasions where women with XY chromosomes, or any sort of mutation, were unable to compete due to sex-testing procedures. Researchers estimate that between 1972 and 1990, approximately one in every 500
elite female athlete was disqualified and countless others at lower levels as well, simply for being unable to meet the standards set for being a female.
In 2009, Caster Semenya, a South African 400 and 800m champion, was described as “breathtakingly butch” while being admired for her speed and athleticism. Many began to question Semenya’s muscular build and long stride which led to her undergoing gender-verification testing.
Later that year, a tabloid reported that her test results had been leaked, stating that though she had external female genitalia, the runner did not have ovaries or a uterus, instead had undescended testes which resulted in three times the amount of testosterone present in an average female. The tabloid went on to conclude that therefore Semenya was at a distinct advantage over her competitors and cannot be allowed to race other women.
As a result, the IAAF, with the rules that were instated at the time, demanded that should Semenya wish to continue her athletic career, she must undergo hormone treatment to lower her testosterone levels. She complied and her speed slowed significantly.
In 2014, an event eerily similar to that of Semenya occurred. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was preparing for the Commonwealth Games when she was instructed to undergo a physical assessment which seemed unlike others she had done before.
It was later revealed that people had been questioning her muscle mass and length of stride for her 5-foot frame. She underwent a gynecological exam that she deemed mortifying and the results came in that she produced more testosterone than most women did, which meant that she could no longer race.
In 2011, the IAAF announced that it would be instituting a test for “hyperandrogenism” when there were reasonable grounds to believe that a woman might have high testosterone levels. Chand however, immediately began to protest the discrimination and took the decision to court, stating that there was no reason she should alter her natural hormonal levels to ensure that other athletes had a chance at beating her.
The notion that athletes all compete on a level playing field is a naïve one. For the top percentage of the population to rise to where they now rest takes not only immense discipline and training regimens but also biological luck. Michael Phelps is said to be double-jointed in his ankles and knees, and Usain Bolt has a much larger stride than many of his competitors. Yet, these abnormalities are praised and admired, with no question as to how to make it fairer for other competitors.
The IAAF and International Olympic Committee (IOC) not only invalidates the notion of any other form of identification but also appears to say that women, should they biologically have more testosterone, need to undergo treatments and/or surgery to reduce it, regardless of the fact that male athletes have no such ‘testosterone limit’.
Under the previous IOC guidelines set in 2003, athletes who transitioned from male to female or vice versa had to have reassignment surgery and a minimum of two years of hormonal therapy in order to compete as the gender by which they identify.
Now, after the IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism in 2015, partially due to the uproar Chand caused, surgery is no longer required and female-to-male transgender athletes have no restrictions upon competing. However, male-to-female transgender athletes need to demonstrate that their testosterone level has been at a certain level for at least a year before their first competition. This new standard means that transgender female athletes may have to undertake years of hormone therapy before their testosterone levels are at the required state.
The typical female range is roughly 1-3 nanomoles of testosterone per liter of blood, and studies show that males typically have ten times that amount. Therefore, the expectation set in 2015 is that female competitors cannot have more than 10 nmol/L, as they would then be in a “male range”.
However, as the stories of Chand and Semenya garnered more publicity, the question of leveling off testosterone levels was brought up. Male athletes are not seen as cheating if they have naturally high levels of testosterone and therefore the same should go for their female counterparts. As such, the IOC has given themselves until this summer to determine whether or not there should be a limit on the nmol/L of testosterone in a female athlete, transgender, androgynous, or otherwise.
The controversy between the distinguished differences in standards in which male athletes and female athletes are held, whether that be performance outcomes or genetic make-up, has been going on since the beginning of sport. Olympic sex testing is just one of the many issues that the overall public has an opinion about and with the IOC’s decision this summer, it will come to a close. However, in time another case will be presented and the great debate between sexes will continue.