Intersex and Sports – Athletes Can Choose Whether to Compete as Men or Women in International Sports
Men and woman compete separately in most sports (see exceptions), and we have assumed that men have physiological advantages over women in the past. However, sex isn’t binary, and lines between who is male and female can be blurred.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that athletes can determine their own sex in international sports like the Olympics until a foolproof way is found to differentiate men from women.
In the past, it has seemed crucial to find criteria for sex verification so that men and women compete as fairly as possible in separate categories. Ruling bodies like The International Association of Athletics Federation or IAAF (track and field’s governing body) created rules limiting the amount of naturally occurring functional testosterone allowed for female athletes. The problem, which we will discuss below, is that there is no single determining factor of sex, including testosterone levels.
The role of the CAS Court of Arbitration of Sport Debates like the one featured here before the 2012 Olympics were common. While the recent CAS ruling regarding intersex athletes is a victory for human rights, it doesn’t end the debate over sex and sports.
TIP: October 26th is Intersex awareness day and November 8th is Intersex Day of Solidarity. These days are dedicated to spreading awareness of the fact that gender isn’t binary. See intersexday.org, In Recognition of Intersex Awareness Day by the U.S. Department of State, and the Equal Rights Coalition.
Are Male and Female the Only Sexes?
Most of us are used to checking off boxes marked “sex: male or female,” but we have to ask ourselves, “are these valid categories?” If they are valid, how can we tell with certainty who should be in any given category?
We don’t have a foolproof biological definition of male and female. The two sexes seem to be different, but we don’t know how to prove it. There is a gray area of the continuum, which includes intersex and transgender individuals, who could arguably be in either category and much complexity even beyond those somewhat definable groups.
If we then consider sexuality, which is a preference and is not a physiological factor, it only makes a choice more difficult.
Our society is accustomed to dividing people into the categories male and female, but, despite what we know about genetics, there is still no currently no reliable scientific evidence for doing this.
The 2016 Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Ruling on Intersex Individuals
The debate over intersex individuals and sports resulted in a 2016 ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is based in Switzerland. The ruling found that “sex in humans is not simply binary…There is no single determinant of sex.” While we can confirm this with scientific evidence, it doesn’t give us an absolute answer when it comes to dividing sports into men’s and women’s categories. We know, this topic aside, that men and women perform differently in sports, and most athletes want a fair competition.
Olympic Lady Gender Testing? Debates like the one featured here before the 2012 Olympics were frequent. While the recent CAS ruling regarding intersex athletes is a big win for human rights, it doesn’t end the debate over sex and sports.
TIP: See CAS 2014/A/3759 Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) & The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the case that the ruling regards.
Men’s and Women’s Sports
There may not be a field where determining sex is as critical as it is in sports. A fear of men pretending to be women to win medals has been around as long as women’s participation in athletics has. Vigilance against this perceived threat has ended the careers of many fine athletes but has led to the research and court rulings that may eventually resolve the problem.
Feeding the fear of male competitors in women’s sports has been a history of people who considered themselves to be women and competed as such, but who were judged male by some criteria. You may have heard of Dora Ratjen, Stella Walsh, or Helen Stephens.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC)
Ever since women began competing in the Olympics in significant numbers, there has been a pervasive fear that men would pass themselves off as women to win events. The fear was particularly strong in the United States during the Cold War, when Americans were afraid that some Soviet athletes were really men. Although there has never been a proven case of this kind of fraud, the fear has led to continual concern about how to verify the sex of female athletes.
The International Olympic Committee mandated Sex Verification Testing for female athletes starting in 1968. Each country sending athletes to the Olympics had to assure the IOC that its female athletes were biologically female. By 1999, the IOC abandoned on-site genetic screening. This did not stop the controversy. Individual countries were still required to perform sex verification.
The first criteria used was visual observation and gynecological examinations. Naturally, this is invasive and objectionable.
Later, the criteria were changed to laboratory testing, but Chromosome testing proved unreliable. In simple terms, female theoretically has an XX pattern and a male has an XY pattern, but a woman can mature with an XY pattern, while a recognized male may have an XXY or XX pattern. Also, some disorders are associated with non-standard sex chromosomes and occur due to complex genetic factors not directly related to X or Y.
When chromosome testing proved unreliable, Testosterone level was used as a criterion. However, women can have androgen resistance making it possible for them to have very high testosterone levels without being able to use the testosterone. This is the most common cause of women failing sex verification testing.
Is it even an advantage for an athlete to have a high level of testosterone? Surprisingly, the answer is, “not necessarily.” Women with intersex conditions don’t show any biological or anatomical characteristics relevant to sports performance. For an in-depth discussion of the issue of gender and athletics, please read The subject of hyperandrogenism and women vs. women vs. men in sport: A Q&A with Joanna Harper[/cite]
A comprehensive source for rulings which involve this topic and others made by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) may be found here.
The History of Sexuality in Sports
In the 1936 Olympics, a German high jumper named Dora (or Heinrich) Ratjen nearly won the bronze medal in high jump. Ratjen was born male but raised as a female. She was arrested for impersonating a woman after her Olympic jump. After the arrest, she acknowledged that she had both male and female genitalia, and considered herself to be a woman. However, since she had male genitalia, she was judged to be male by the German courts and was told to live her life as Heinrich. Fraud was not an issue since there was no attempt to profit.
1936 High Jump.
Fact: There is a variation of gender characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, or genitals that do not allow an individual to be identified as male or female. A small minority of infants are born intersex. In the past, a decision was usually made in infancy to remove or alter one set of genitals and bring the child up accordingly, although the current practice has begun to favor waiting and allowing the individual to mature and decide for themselves.
Maria Jose Martinez Patino, a hurdler from Spain, failed her sex verification test in 1985 and appealed the ruling. She won, but not soon enough to salvage her competitive edge or the life she had before being judged male. See the youtube video below for footage of her Testosterone, which was the next marker used in sex verification, stood until challenged by Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand.
Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, was suspended in 2014 because her hormone level exceeded the allowed maximum. She appealed and took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). You can see an interview with Dutee Chand in the youtube video below.
An interview with Dutee Chand.
CAS suspended gender verification based on testosterone levels until 2017, during which time the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) must prove that women with high testosterone levels have a competitive advantage to have testosterone be considered to be a sex marker.
Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, was also ordered to undergo gender verification. She used hormone therapy for a time so she could lower her testosterone and be considered female for the purpose of competition. She competed in the Olympics. Her mother gives her history in this youtube video.
Dorcas and Caster Semenya.
According to 2003 IOC guidelines, transgender athletes had to have sex reassignment surgery and two years of hormone therapy to compete internationally. To be considered female, athletes had to prove their testosterone was below ten nanomoles per liter of blood.
In 2016, the IOC ruled that transgender athletes can participate in the Olympics without surgery, although hormone replacement therapy is required for male-to-female athletes before a competition.
Do Men Have an Advantage in Sports?
The majority of strong male athletes have been thought to perform better than their female counterparts. This seems true in events that depend on weight or body mass and less true in other events. In some events, such as ski jump and long distance swimming, the gap between the best men and best women closes.
If it is true that there is a difference in performance between men and women, then there needs to be some regulation in place to make sure that sports offer competitors a level playing field, in so far as that exists. What criteria can we use to verify sex?
Sexuality in Sports.