Intersex athletes have been in the news a lot recently, as high-profile female runners like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand come under scrutiny for having some physical features commonly associated with men.
These controversies aren't new. For decades, rumors and speculation have swirled around female athletes who have been suspected of either being men or having a difference/disorder of sex development (DSD), commonly known as intersex.
The assumption is that men hold an inherent advantage over women when it comes to physical competition, and that some intersex conditions might give an unfair advantage to female athletes.
Doubts have been especially intense for elite women athletes competing on the international stage. In the 1936 Olympics, two U.S. runners--Stella Walsh and Helen Stephens--fell under suspicion of being men. Fierce competitors, Walsh and Stephens were renowned for their record-breaking races--and their unusual physical appearance. Both women had musculature and facial features more commonly seen in men.
According to the authors of "Intersex and the Olympic Games," published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,
"Rumors circulated the Games that both Walsh and Stephens were men, competing with the wrong sex to gain unfair advantage." (Ritchie et al., 2008, p. 1)
After Stephens narrowly edged out Walsh in the 100-meter sprint, Walsh publicly accused Stephens of being male:
"Since no formal gender verification program existed at this time, the Olympic committee felt compelled to perform a sex check on Stephens. This sex test was a crude physical examination involving the gross inspection of the external genitalia; it confirmed Stephens possessed female external genitalia." (Ritchie et al., 2008, p. 1)
Stephens got to keep her medal. But In following decades, sports authorities employed various means of "gender verification" with elite female athletes, from gynecological examinations to testing chromosomes and DNA. As a result, many athletes who were found to have a DSD were barred from competing.
And yet, there wasn't any proof that intersex athletes held an inherent advantage over other women, much less that individual athletes were purposely misrepresenting their gender. Also, it turned out to be pretty challenging to determine where to draw the line in defining biological sex.
The authors of "Intersex and the Olympic Games" assert:
"Notably, gender testing in athletics has never identified an individual deliberately misrepresenting their gender. Testing has, however, created controversy and embarrassment for a significant number of female athletes competing, often unknowingly, with some form of intersex disorder. Indeed, there is no evidence that female athletes with DSDs have displayed any sports-relevant physical attributes which have not been seen in biologically normal female athletes. However, numerous female athletes have been unfairly barred from competing." ("Ritchie et al., 2008, p. 5)
In 1999, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ceased the practice of mandatory gender verification for Olympic athletes. However, this did not end the debates swirling around intersex and sports.
Recently, these controversies were revived when the IOC and International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) issued new rules regarding the regulation of testosterone levels in athletes who compete as women. These rules are based on the assumption that it is ultimately the presence of testes--and the production of testosterone--that gives male athletes (and potentially some intersex women) an edge in competitive sports.
Read more about the recent IAAF decision regarding testosterone levels in these two contrasting opinion pieces, published in the New York Times.
This piece by Melissa Block of National Public Radio sheds further light on the recent focus on testosterone levels, as well as the sensitivities surrounding gender verification for athletes.
Check out the full article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine to learn more about the history of gender verification in women's sports and why the authors believe it's hard to draw clear distinctions when it comes to biological sex.
Block, M. (2016, August 16). The sensitive question of intersex athletes. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2016/08/16/490236620/south-african-star-raises-sensitive-questions-about-intersex-athletes
Coleman, D. (2018, April 30). Sex, sport, and why track and field's new rules on intersex athletes are essential. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/sports/track-gender-rules.html
Dreger, A. (2018, April 27). Track's absurd new rules for women. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/27/opinion/caster-semenya-intersex-athletes.html
Ritchie, R., Reynard, J., & Lewis, T. (2008). Intersex and the Olympic Games. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101(8), 395-399. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2500237/
World Athletics. (2018, April 26). IAAF introduces new eligibility regulations for female classification [Press release]. https://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/eligibility-regulations-for-female-classifica
DeeWho is Dee?
Gender Identity Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.
Gender Expression How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.
Attraction How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.
Biological Sex Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.
Read the official report from the IAAF on the new eligibility regulations.