Gender verification in sports

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South African athlete Caster Semenya was cleared to continue competing as a woman after gender testing by the IAAF.

Gender verification in sports (also known as sex verification, or loosely as gender determination or a sex test) is the issue of verifying the eligibility of an athlete to compete in a sporting event that is limited to a single sex. The issue has arisen a number of times in the Olympic games where it has been alleged that male athletes attempted to compete as women in order to win, or that an intersex person competed as a woman. The first mandatory sex test issued by the IAAF for woman athletes was in July 1950 in the month before the European Championships in Belgium. All athletes were tested in their own countries.[1] Sex testing at the games began at the 1966 European Athletics Championships in response to suspicion that several of the best women athletes from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were actually men.[2] At the Olympics, testing was introduced at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble. While it arose primarily from the Olympic Games, gender verification affects any sporting event. However, it most often becomes an issue in elite international competition.

It is not always a simple case of checking for XX vs. XY chromosomes to determine whether an athlete is a woman or a man. Fetuses start out as undifferentiated, and the Y chromosome turns on a variety of hormones that differentiate the baby as a male. Sometimes this does not occur, and people with two X chromosomes can develop hormonally as a male, and people with an X and a Y can develop hormonally as a female.[3]


For a period of time these tests were mandatory for female athletes. A New York Times article[clarification needed] suggests it was due to fears that male athletes would pose as female athletes and have an unfair advantage over their competitors.

One form of gender identification, which was mandated for all female olympic athletes by the International Olympic Committee in 1992, tested for the presence of the SRY gene, which is found on the Y-chromosome, to identify males potentially disguised as females. This method of testing was later abolished, as it was shown to be inconclusive in identifying maleness.[4] Nowadays, gender verification tests typically involve evaluation by gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, and internal medicine specialists.


United States Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage requested, during or shortly after the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, that a system be established to examine female athletes. According to a Time magazine article about hermaphrodites, Brundage felt the need to clarify "sex ambiguities" after observing the performance of Czechoslovak runner and jumper Zdeňka Koubková and English shotputter and javelin thrower Mary Edith Louise Weston. Both individuals later had sex change surgery and legally changed their names, to Zdeněk Koubek and Mark Weston, respectively.[5]

  • Perhaps the earliest known case is that of Stanisława Walasiewicz (aka Stella Walsh), a Polish athlete who won a gold medal in the women's 100 m at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but who after her death in 1980 was discovered to have had partially developed male genitalia. (See below for genitalia as indicators of a person's sex.)[citation needed]
  • Another Polish athlete Ewa Kłobukowska, who won the gold medal in women's 4x100 m relay and the bronze medal in women's 100 m sprint at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, is the first athlete to fail a gender test in 1967. She was found to have the rare genetic condition of XX/XXY mosaicism and was banned from competing in Olympic and professional sports.[citation needed]
  • Eight athletes failed the tests at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics but were all cleared by subsequent physical examinations.[citation needed]
  • In 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Princess Anne of the United Kingdom was the only female competitor not to have to submit to a sex test.[6] She was a member of her country's equestrian team.


The practice has come under scrutiny from those who feel that the testing is humiliating, socially insensitive, and not entirely accurate or effective. The testing is especially difficult in the case of people who could be considered intersex. Genetic differences can allow a person to have a male genetic make-up and female anatomy or body chemistry.

The Journal of the American Medical Association stated,

Gender verification tests are difficult, expensive, and potentially inaccurate. Furthermore, these tests fail to exclude all potential impostors (eg, some 46,XX males), are discriminatory against women with disorders of sexual development, and may have shattering consequences for athletes who 'fail' a test."[7]

The journal also reports:

"Gender verification has long been criticized by geneticists, endocrinologists, and others in the medical community. One major problem was unfairly excluding women who had a birth defect involving gonads and external genitalia (i.e., male pseudohermaphroditism). ...

A second problem is that only women, not men, were subjected to Gender verification testing. Systematic follow-up was rarely available for athletes "failing" the test, which often was performed under very public circumstances. Follow-up was crucial because the subjects were not male impostors, but intersexed individuals."[7]

Current status[edit]

Sex testing was first performed at the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996. A resolution was passed at the 1996 International Olympic Committee (IOC) World Conference on Women and Health "to discontinue the current process of gender verification during the Olympic Games." The International Olympic Committee's board voted to discontinue the practice in June 1999.[8] In individual cases the IOC stills holds on to the right to test on gender.[9]

Newer rules permit transsexual athletes to compete in the Olympics after having completed sex reassignment surgery, being legally recognized as a member of the sex they wish to compete as, and having undergone two years of hormonal therapy (unless they transitioned before puberty).[10] These controversies would continue with the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing.[11]

The International Association of Athletics Federations ceased sex screening for all athletes in 1992,[12] but retains the option of assessing the sex of a participant should suspicions arise. This was invoked most recently in August 2009 with the mandated testing of South African athlete Caster Semenya.[13]

The Olympic Council of Asia continues the practice.[citation needed]

In June 2012, in advance of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the IOC released IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism, which addressed cases of female hyperandrogenism. The regulation includes the statement, "Nothing in these Regulations is intended to make any determination of sex. Instead, these Regulations are designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason of hormonal characteristics) to participate in 2012 OG Competitions in the female category. In the event that the athlete has been declared ineligible to compete in the female category, the athlete may be eligible to compete as a male athlete, if the athlete qualifies for the male event of the sport."[14] This policy has been criticized on the grounds that testosterone level is not predictor of athleticism and that the policy does not protect individuals' right to gender self-identification.[15]

In football, FIFA's current gender verification policy dates to May 30, 2011.[16]

Notable incidents[edit]

  • Prior to the advent of sexual verification tests, German athlete Dora Ratjen competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and placed fourth in the women's high jump. He later competed and set a world record for the women's high jump at the 1938 European Championships before tests by the German police concluded that he was actually a man who then took the name Heinrich Ratjen.[citation needed]
  • The Dutch sprinter Foekje Dillema was expelled from the 1950 national team after she refused a mandatory sex test in July 1950; later investigations revealed a Y-chromosome in her body cells, and the analysis showed that she probably was a 46,XX/46,XY mosaic female.[17]
  • Sisters Tamara and Irina Press won five track and field Olympic gold medals for the Soviet Union and set 26 world records in the 1960s. They ended their careers before the introduction of gender testing in 1966. There is no proof of a disorder in sexual development in these cases.[2]
  • In 1967 the IOC disqualified Erika Schinegger, the 1966 female world champion in downhill skiing, from the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble after determining Schinegger had internal male sex organs. Schinegger later transitioned to a male, Erik.
  • Professional tennis player Renée Richards, a transsexual woman, was barred from playing as a woman at the 1976 US Open unless she submitted to chromosome testing. She sued the United States Tennis Association and in 1977 won the right to play as a woman without submitting to testing.[18]
  • Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan, who won the silver medal in 800 m at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, failed the gender verification test and was stripped of her medal.
  • South African runner Caster Semenya won the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field's governing body, confirmed that Semenya had agreed to a sex-testing process that began in South Africa and would continue in Germany. On July 6, 2010, the IAAF confirmed that Semenya was cleared to continue competing as a woman, although the results of the gender testing were never officially released for privacy reasons.[19]
  • After female Indian track athlete Pinki Pramanik was accused by a female roommate of rape and later charged, she was gender tested and declared a male although she and other medical experts dispute the claims.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^[full citation needed]
  2. ^ a b R. Peel, "Eve’s Rib - Searching for the Biological Roots of Sex Differences", Crown Publishers, New York, 1994, ISBN 0-517-59298-3[page needed]
  3. ^ Dreger, Alice (August 21, 2009). "Where’s the Rulebook for Sex Verification?". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-21. 
  4. ^ "Olympic Gender Testing". 
  5. ^ "Change of Sex" 24 August 1936 Time
  6. ^ Klein, Dianne (1984-07-31). "Olympic Gender Test Makes Sex Explicit". Schenectady Gazette. UPI. p. 2. Retrieved 2015-06-04. 
  7. ^ a b Simpson JL, Ljungqvist A, Ferguson-Smith MA, et al. (September 2000). "Gender verification in the Olympics". JAMA 284 (12): 1568–9. doi:10.1001/jama.284.12.1568. PMID 11000653. 
  8. ^ Genel M (2000). "Gender verification no more?". Medscape Women's Health 5 (3): E2. PMID 11109043. 
  9. ^ K. Mascagni, "World conference on women and sport", Olympic Review XXVI. vol. 12, pp. 23-31, 1996-1997
  10. ^ If a man has a sex change, can he compete in the Olympics as a woman? The Straight Dope 22 August 2008
  11. ^ A Lab is Set to Test the Gender of Some Female Athletes. New York Times 30 July 2008 [1]
  12. ^ Simpson JL, Ljungqvist A, de la Chapelle A, et al. (November 1993). "Gender verification in competitive sports". Sports Medicine 16 (5): 305–15. doi:10.2165/00007256-199316050-00002. PMID 827268. 
  13. ^ "Semenya told to take gender test". BBC Sport. 19 August 2009. Retrieved 19 August 2009. 
  14. ^ "IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism" (PDF). International Olympic Committee. 2012-06-22. Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  15. ^ Jordan-Young, Rebecca; Karkazis, Katrina (2012-06-17), "You Say You’re a Woman? That Should Be Enough", New York Times, retrieved 2012-08-09 
  16. ^; cf. 'Regulations: FIFA Gender Verification',
  17. ^ Ballantyne KN, Kayser M, Grootegoed JA (June 2012). "Sex and gender issues in competitive sports: investigation of a historical case leads to a new viewpoint". British Journal of Sports Medicine 46 (8): 614–7. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.082552. PMC 3375582. PMID 21540190. 
  18. ^ Amdur, Neil (August 17, 1977). "Renee Richards Ruled Eligible for U.S. Open; Ruling Makes Renee Richards Eligible to Qualify for U.S. Open". The New York Times. 
  19. ^ Motshegwa, Lesogo; Gerald Imray (2010-07-06). "World champ Semenya cleared to return to track". Yahoo!. Associated Press. Retrieved 2010-07-06. [dead link]
  20. ^ "Medical experts doubt Pinki Pramanik can rape". Times of India. 14 November 2012. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 

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