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Beyond ‘men’ and ‘women’: the fraught issue of Olympic gender testing

In June, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that some athletes at the London Olympics, though legally female, may be subject to testing to see if their bodies produce an above-average quantity…

South African athlete Caster Semenya was subject to gender testing following the 2009 athletics world championships. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

In June, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that some athletes at the London Olympics, though legally female, may be subject to testing to see if their bodies produce an above-average quantity of “male” sex hormones, such as testosterone.

Competitors already undergo tests to rule out drugs that mimic these hormones, which affect things such as muscle mass. But this concern is over participants whose bodies naturally generate possible performance-enhancing features. If suspicion is raised, refusal to undergo testing will likely result in suspension even though the benefits of these elevated hormone levels is contentious.

Questions of who was allowed to compete in women’s events at the Olympics were first raised in 1968, out of the fear that there were men masquerading as women to gain advantage. Since then, athletes have been subjected to a range of tests, some humiliating and many invasive.

In 2009, South African athlete Caster Semenya was famously subjected to gender testing following victory in the 800m at the athletics World Championships, a move that attracted considerable media attention.

While the test results weren’t publicly released, Semenya was allowed to keep her world championships medal and, in 2010, was cleared by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to compete in women’s events at an international level. Semenya carried the flag for South Africa during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

Madeleine Burleson

For the London Games, any necessary gender tests are to be performed by an “expert panel” made up of an endocrinologist, gynaecologist and a genetic specialist. Ultimately, the panel decides whether an athlete is eligible to compete in women’s events.

As yet, there have been no publicised cases of gender testing at the 2012 Games.

Interestingly, it’s unclear whether a woman found to have elevated “male” hormone levels might enter into the men’s division. In fact, it would seem that suspended athletes are effectively in limbo, banned from contest because their body is classified as abnormal.

The IOC states their rules are not “intended to make any determination of sex”. So if not sex, then what is being decided?


Sex is often classified in terms of biological factors. Generally, sex is first assigned based on external appearances – we proclaim, “It’s a boy” when a baby is born with a penis. What this translates to in real terms is far from clear.

A person might have XY chromosomes typically associated with male sex organ development but be unable to process certain hormones, leading to outer “female” features. On the flip side, someone might be XX female but produce certain hormones so they look more “male”.

Given that we generally think of sex as falling into only two distinct categories – male and female – people who have variations in sex factors are often labelled intersex. However, variation from “typical” male and female characteristics in the population has been estimated as high as one in 100 births.

John Lawlor


Gender has commonly been used to refer to social roles and identity. Feminists have often argued that there’s a distinction between sex and gender to point out that human potential is not determined by sex at birth.

Despite this distinction, we generally assume (sex variation aside) that babies dubbed girls at birth grow up to be women. In this way, a gender label and identity is also assigned. But for some, this doesn’t fit.

Some people seek to change recognition of their assigned identity. Such people often identify with the umbrella term “transgender” and may express their gender identity in many different ways. Some undergo surgery or hormonal therapy, though others do not.

The main point here is that there’s a lot of variation in how people identify both physically and socially. The problem is that in sport, we use the categories “men” and “women”, but this isn’t determined by how people self-identify. And given how fuzzy sex is biologically, when you try and introduce a test to assign people, you inevitably run into trouble.

Eliminating body difference

The idea there are distinct male and female hormones is misleading. In fact, even ovaries produce testosterone. Because the IOC has chosen a specific “unacceptable” level of testosterone production, it seems that who classifies as a woman is a matter of hormonal degree rather than clear-cut biological difference.

AJ Cann

There are many studies showing other naturally occurring traits that lead to competitive advantage in sport and yet these are not policed. Banning someone who has predisposed greater lung capacity, or larger feet and hands would sound obscene - so why do we so readily focus on sex factors?

The IOC position follows a similar decision made by the IAAF in 2011. The IAAF also suggests that females disqualified on this basis may elect to undergo treatment to normalise their hormone levels and be re-tested at a later date in the hope of then qualifying to compete.

Aside from possible minor side-effects experienced as a result of treatment, this kind of solution digs a trench where there was once a line in the sand. In essence, the difference between what we consider to be a “normal” woman versus man becomes more divided than ever.


A reaction to this testing might be to say that it’s fair enough. After all, how else do we distinguish between who can compete in which group?

One suggestion is that instead of separating sport into men and women’s categories, groups could be created that reflected varying levels of ability relative to physical characteristics. This would reflect the way you can compete in either lightweight or standard divisions in rowing, or weight categories in boxing.

After all, when it comes to sex and gender, two boxes just don’t seem to cover it.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Margaret Rose STRINGER

    retired but interested

    "instead of separating sport into men and women’s categories, groups could be created that reflected varying levels of ability relative to physical characteristics."
    Sounds good to ME...

    1. Will Hardy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Margaret Rose STRINGER

      Wandering off-topic: I'm much more impressed by an untrained, overweight person completing a 5k run than a trained athlete running 20k. For the trained athlete it's a strenuous, but manageable pastime; for the untrained it is an extraordinary achievement requiring untold determination, physical strength and courage. I get the feeling some people don't see the achievement for what it is.

      Same thing as climbing stairs: do it wearing a 50kg backpack next time and you'll appreciate the athletic endeavour involved. You'll then look at any climbing overweight person in awe.

  2. Catherine Ayres

    PhD Candidate

    Such a great article. The gender testing procedures are humiliating enough, but the ridicule sometimes faced after testing can and has led to tragic events, such as Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian runner who "failed" a sex test because she had "abnormal chromosomes", and was stripped of her silver medal in 2006. Her career was wrecked, she went from a national hero to a national joke in a matter of days, and subsequently attempted suicide. I guess my point is the repercussions of gender testing reach far further than losing a medal or a title.

  3. Peter Ormonde


    Excellent and useful piece.

    Now I'd reckon a panel of the wise elders who control the millions we pour into elite sport should be the ultimate judges on this vexed issue. Perhaps every vexed issue actually. Yep the blokes who run around slapping bans on athletes commenting on administrative issues, who pluck this one over that one, whose decisions are unchallengeable and beyond question. Folks who just Know They're Right.

    You know it makes sense.

  4. Zoe Brain

    logged in via Facebook

    Trying to coerce Reality into a strict binary works most of the time. Probably 59 times in 60, everything lines up to match a stereotype.

    The other one in sixty can be a minor anomaly, easily swept under the carpet, or something that explodes the whole concept. But you know that.

    What you may not realise are the full ramifications, legally, socially, and medically, for those of us whose bodies don't fit the socially constructed idea of "sex", let alone "gender".

    I fit into a gender binary…

    Read more
  5. Margaret Rose STRINGER

    retired but interested

    I've been meaning to ask the editors for ages: why the devil do you rearrange the order of posts? - it's very confusing to find posts appearing above others made earlier.
    Why on earth not show them in order of posting? - with the exception, of course, of actual responses to others' posts...

  6. Robin Cameron

    Research Fellow

    Great piece!

    Should we continue using the term 'gender test'? The test doesn't examine the extent to which the athletes conform to dominant stereotypes of social behavior.

    It's not just 'feminists' that employ the sex/gender distinction.

  7. Graham Smith

    Regular guy

    I sympathize with women competitors who legitimately (genetically?) qualify as a female competitors, while being scrutinized for high testosterone levels. Having said that, there has to be safeguards protecting female athletes from unscrupulous athletes who illegitimately boost hormone levels to gain an unfair advantage. Increased lung capacity and unusually large feet are highly unlikely to be the result of anything other than genetics, while elevated testosterone can very easily be the result of doping. The next question is, if we are to set a testosterone level over which is considered "abnormal", what should that level be?

    1. Zoe Brain

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Graham Smith

      One of the problems here is that different people have different sensitivities to Testosterone.

      For example, I know of a case of PAIS-6 (partial androgen insensitivity syndrome grade 6, almost complete) in the IDF who did very well initially in their Special Forces course. She had an initial physical advantage. Her testosterone levels were normal for a male, despite her feminine body. But while the other girls soon "bulked up" their muscles under the physical regimen of gruelling exercise and…

      Read more
  8. Eric Glare

    HIV public speaker and volunteer

    re: "Questions of who was allowed to compete in women’s events at the Olympics were first raised in 1968, out of the fear that there were men masquerading as women to gain advantage."

    Heggie (2010 Endeavour 34(4):157-163) provide evidence that "systematic sex testing, of a sort, existed at least as early as the 1940s".

    Would be commiserate with attitudes unfortunately.

  9. Peter Sonksen

    logged in via Facebook

    Excellent article - very balanced, well done.
    It maybe that simple 'gender testing' on basis of how an individual lives 'her' life is as far as one can get. If this is challenged by another athlete, then a clinical exam by a suitably qualified doctor would be sufficient and exclude the very rare man masquerading as a woman? I see no place for measuring testosterone levels. How and why IAAF and IOC choose this smacks of ignorance to me.