In 1936, an already controversial Berlin Olympics set the groundwork for another debate that continues to this day. Female athletes Stella Walsh and Helen Stephens came under scrutiny after there was speculation that the two were actually men disguised as women, who had entered the women's 100-meter sprint in order to gain an unfair advantage. While these claims were never proved, they did have significant repercussions, felt by female athletes even today. The situation which two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya found herself in barely begins to scratch the surface of the practice of discriminating against women based on “sex testing”.
Earlier this month, according to reports, Semenya lost a crucial case after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that female track athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone can only participate in major events, including the Olympics, if they decrease their hormone levels. Semenya had challenged those restrictions placed on women, but ultimately suffered defeat.
Sex testing, a process that was introduced in the 1930s by sports authorities, sought to prevent male athletes posing as female in international competition. While athletes could initially present an affidavit from their own doctors to show proof of their gender, this soon moved to gynaecological examinations and visual inspections. This approach was adopted in the 1990s when genetic testing and chromosomal analysis became a standard for sex testing.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the global body which oversees track and field events, first mandated sex testing in 1950 for female athletes competing in the European Championships held in Belgium. In 1968, testing was introduced in the Olympics. The reasoning for the necessity of such a test was because of the a suspicion that some of the best women athletes were actually men.
It was in this manner that Semenya first found herself under the spotlight after someone had “challenged her sex” in the Track and Field World Championships in 2009. She was subject to sex testing and though the results were never made public, word did get out that she was under the lens for this reason. Semenya has borne the brunt of this and has waged almost a decade long battle as from 2009 until now, her credentials as an athlete have been questioned for the mere reason that she was earlier subject to such a test.
This was not the first time that such an issue had been brought to the attention of the world. Santhi Soundarajan, an athlete from a small village in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district, was stripped of her silver medal from the 2006 Asian Games after being told that a gender verification test deemed her unfit to participate in the women’s competition. The Olympic Association later told her that she could no longer compete.
Sex testing was again brought up after Indian athlete Dutee Chand was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games after the Athletic Federation of India (AFI) declared that as someone with hyperandrogenism (increased levels of androgynous or male hormones, namely testosterone), she was ineligible to compete as a female. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in 2015 after which the IAAF’s sex testing policy was suspended for two years, allowing Dutee to compete.
IAAF’s policy on sex testing
In 2018, the IAAF updated its policy on sex testing and stated that all athletes with a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD), or those with elevated testosterone levels, had to meet certain requirements to be eligible to compete in some international competitions. The first was that they had to be legally recognised as female or as an intersex individual. The second was that her testosterone level must be reduced to an accepted rate (using medication) and maintain it at that level for as long as she intended to compete in such professional circuits.
Semenya challenged this and stated that not only did the new policy discriminate against women, it lacked significant scientific support. She also noted that it caused extensive emotional distress and trauma to the women who are subject to such intense scrutiny.
The idea behind introducing sex testing was to catch any male impostors. However, none have ever been discovered.
However, it was not only the IAAF which maintained such a strict stance. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also shares this outlook, going as far as to claim that “individual nations couldn’t be trusted” when it came to certifying gender. This led to the implementation of a mandatory genital check of every female athlete who took part in an international sport.
In an absolute violation of human rights, women were sometimes subject to a ‘nude parade’, in which they would be forced to strip in front of a panel of doctors to prove that they had female genitalia. This was later done away with after karyotyping (chromosome testing) was implemented as part of sex testing in the 1960s.
Does higher testosterone levels guarantee better performance?
“Hyperandrogenism is a condition referring to elevated androgynous hormones in females (namely testosterone). This could be due to a number of underlying issues ranging from a tumour in the endocrine system to PCOS or something else. We cannot merely use this to claim that a woman is not a woman, or that she has an unfair advantage in sports,” says one doctor from the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI).
While the IAAF claims that it has scientific evidence to show that women with a higher testosterone level do have an added advantage, this is based on a single study alone and has been refuted by several others, including the World Medical Association (WMA).
“Some women just naturally have higher testosterone levels. Moreover, athletic women are bound to have certain changes in their physiology because of the fact that they undergo so much training. We cannot state that a higher testosterone level alone guarantees that someone does better in a sport,” says Dr Archana Sampath, a Chennai-based obstetrician and gynaecologist.
IAAF has now stated that Semenya and other female athletes with elevated testosterone can enter men’s events if they did not want to take medications to lower testosterone levels. This move has been opposed by many, including the WMA.
The current policies in place act against Semenya and other women like her, aren't necessary and serve no effective purpose.