Sex Confirmation Testing in International Sports
With the Rio Olympics ending, it seems an apt time to review some of the news that emerged surrounding the controversial and long-lived practice of verifying the sex of female athletes. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) exist to ensure fair competition on the international stage, they police the actions of athletes and teams as well as determining eligibility for competition. The IAAF states it is, “proud of its position at the forefront of the global fight against doping in sport, and is resolutely committed to athletics, and to the preservation of a zero-tolerance policy with respect to doping.” (IAAF Commitment to Healthy and Drug-Free Athletics, 2016). But where is the mention of other standards for fairness, other ways the playing field is leveled? These same governing organizations have been forcing athletes who intend to compete as females to undergo “gender confirmation testing” since the 1940’s, when a medical “femininity certificates” was required to compete as a woman; going as far as “mandatory genital checks” which began in 1966 (Padawer, 2016). Eventually these tests were deemed inappropriate and unjust. No male athletes attempting to compete as women were discovered through this practice. The international governing bodies for sport moved towards chromosome testing, with the intent to remove unfair advantages. This practice has the IAAF viewing genetic discrepancies, not having only two X allosomes, in the same way they treat the advantages doping athletes may posses. This policy changed again in 2011 and the IAAF moved from “gender testing” to testosterone level testing (Padawer, 2016). By looking at hyperandrogenism (high testosterone levels) the agency was implying that this was a source of athletic advantages. They set boundaries on the acceptable levels of testosterone in order to still compete as a woman. Some problems with this have been outlined, “The official Olympic testosterone cutoff for female athletes is 10 nanomoles per liter, but some go beyond it, into the “male” range, and some men fall into the “female” range, thanks to normal hormonal fluctuations that differ from individual to individual.” (Editors, 2016). Surgical and hormone suppressive therapies were set out as ways of reducing testosterone levels and lifting the ban on competing with their natural levels of testosterone. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, the practice of banning athletes based on naturally high testosterone was not employed. However, if significant evidence is found that higher than normal testosterone levels constitute an unfair advantage hyperandrogenism testing may resume on the national stage (Editors, 2016).
With this history outlined, there is a context to consider the games in Brazil. One athlete, in particular should be underlined in relationship to sex verification testing and biological fairness, Caster Semenya. Semenya is a South African runner who took gold this year in the 800m. She has been subject to many sex confirmational tests, the results of which were improperly handled by athletics governing bodies and made it to the press. The general secretary of the IAAF (Pierre Weiss) said publically about Semenya, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.” (Padawer) Despite all of the barriers to competing and private records leading to headlines she made it to the top of the podium in Rio. Hopefully, other athletes who faced difficulties with “gender verification testing” will see similar success. The news around gender testing is changing it seems that now more than ever the agencies that determine eligibility are under scrutiny rather than just the women striving to compete.
"IAAF Commitment to Healthy and Drug-Free Athletics." IAAF. International Association of Athletics Federation, n.d. Web. 05 Sept. 2016. <https://www.iaaf.org/about-iaaf/medical-anti-doping>.
Editors. "Naturally Occurring High Testosterone Shouldn't Keep Female Athletes out of Competition." Scientific American. Scientific American, 1 Aug. 2016. Web. 5 Sept. 2016. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/naturally-occurring-high-testosterone-shouldn-t-keep-female-athletes-out-of-competition/>.
Padawer, Ruth. "The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 July 2016. Web. 05 Sept. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/magazine/the-humiliating-practice-of-sex-testing-female-athletes.html>.