Athletes Show That Sex and Gender Are Not Easily Defined

It’s not easy being a female athlete. Being feminine and being sporty don’t always go hand-in-hand, and we’re socially conditioned to prioritize one (hint: femininity) over the other. Seriously. There was a push before the London Olympics to force female boxes to wear miniskirts so the audience could more easily tell the men from the women. Because you have just got to be able to tell which athletes are worth watching and which ones aren’t, am I right?

This itself is eye-rollingly stupid, but as technology and medicine improve, we’ve also started enforcing gender conformity on the molecular level.

Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was disqualified days before she was scheduled to compete in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Not for doping or other types of cheating, but because she has excess testosterone in her body. Excess for her sex, that is. Apparently, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) started getting suspicious of Chand when she beat her personal best in the 200-meter earlier this year. She won two gold medals at last month’s Asian Junior Championship, which prompted the SAI to test Chand for “female hyperandrogenism.”

Female hyperandrogenism just means that a female person is making excessive amounts of testosterone, and it’s often a symptom of of polycystic ovary syndrome. The SAI has gone out of its way to clarify that this is not a “gender test,” per se. The test doesn’t assign a gender. For female athletes, though, I think this is a distinction without a difference. This test is being used by SAI — and, unfortunately for female athletes everywhere, the International Olympic Committee — to determine whether female athletes are female enough to compete.

Initially, these types of tests were trying to keep men out of women’s competitions, but the reasoning has morphed into concern for “fairness.” As to what isn’t fair about it escapes me. We’re talking about world class athletes. Michael Phelps is basically all torso, which no doubt would give him an advantage in the pool over your Average Joe. Are we about to put height limits on basketball players or volleyball players? What about the length of a runner’s legs? Weird physical quirks give certain athletes advantages over others. However, as far as I know, no sporting authority has deemed it appropriate to create separate categories out of them.

Chand is far from the first woman to be put under the microscope in this way. In 1950, Dutch track athlete Foekje Dillema was disqualified from competition because she tested positive for a Y chromosome (which does not, contrary to popular belief, provide irrefutable evidence for male-ness). In the 1980s, Spanish hurdler María José Martínez-Patiño was put under harsh international scrutiny when it came to light that, although she is genetically male, she is not sensitive to androgen, which means that she developed as a girl. And then, of course, there is the South African runner Caster Semenya. As Jon Gugala at Deadspin notes, before all the hoopla surrounding her gender, Semenya was on her way to becoming one of the fastest women runners of all time. After undergoing treatment to “normalise” her? Things aren’t looking so bright.

Semenya has never commented on what treatments she has undergone, if any, but something has certainly changed: Since her breakout year in 2009, she has never run as fast, and in fact she has steadily gotten slower. Last year she ran her slowest season-best since 2008. And while it’s difficult to say if she’ll be able to drag her performance out of its tailspin, the trend is ominous.

The uniquely accelerated evolution of her career—from controversial phenom to subject of banal, late-career gossip (“CASTER TAKES A WIFE!”) in less than five years—makes it tempting to start musing on her legacy. Who knows how history will look back on Caster Semenya. At 18 years old, she became the 13th-fastest woman ever to run the distance, and she did it in an un-paced championship. She was well on her way to becoming her sport’s greatest mid-distance woman ever.

That one-time inevitability seems remote. In some ways, that decline is as important as what came before, particularly if it emerges that she’d been forced to undergo hormone therapy as a condition of returning to her sport.

Just consider that for a second—consider the very real possibility that to make Semenya more of a “woman,” the sport decided to make her less of an athlete.

Semenya was yet another woman who was forced to choose between femininity and athleticism.

Part of the problem here is that sporting authorities are trying to distill something as complex as sex and gender down into one test. But that’s just not possible. We used to think chromosomes were the final word, but they aren’t. Now we’re finding that hormones aren’t good either. Maybe, if testosterone levels are so important, we should just separate athletes based on that. As Mark Naimark at Slate found out, that literally did not cross anybody’s mind.

And why should “men” be exempt from these considerations? If testosterone is so important, how fair is it for a man with low natural levels of testosterone to compete against men with high levels? When I asked Arne Ljungqvist, the IOC and IAAF official responsible for both bringing an end to chromosome testing (yay) and introducing the new verification regime (boo), why men should not be subject to the same type of evaluation, he appeared surprised, but managed to respond: “Androgens are not a problem within the males; we don’t have categories within males.” Thus, for men, the more androgens the better, because testosterone is particularly “male,” while for women they are a dangerous unfair advantage. Masculinity is good in men and evil in women, confirming the clichés and stereotypes that have served as stumbling blocks and barriers to women’s participation in sport since its earliest days.

Ah good. The truth comes out. Women’s bodies need to be scrutinized. The outside world needs to make sure these are real women. It’s for our own protection, you see. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about a thing.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V10 months ago


Jerome S
Jerome S10 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Susan T.
Susan T3 years ago

Gender is pretty well defined. Either you have a vagina or a penis.

The way you choose to define yourself is your problem

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

The ladies are not different from the men but they are usually not respected

Paola Ballanti
Paola Ballanti3 years ago


Moira P.
Moira P3 years ago

Interesting food for thought! Thanks! I had not realised that bodies do of course contain different levels of hormones naturally and testing positive for testosterone for women does not mean they have been taking hormones!

Ernest Roth
Ernest R3 years ago

@ Kamia M."let anyone compete wherever they choose" That has been tried, and women rejected it. Unfortunately, with lower upper body strength and lower testosterone levels their losses were depressing and humiliating. Pretend women should do better. Fire departments found that women were not strong enough to pass the tests of being able to carry an unconscious man from a burning building. They lowered the standards. Problem solved, sort of.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F3 years ago


Joanne Dixon
Joanne Dixon3 years ago

In 1981, I had a cat who gave birth to four (living) kittens, one of which was a male with an undescended testicle. You should have heard the arguments about his gender. Being a cat he didn't care (although his neutering surgery was tougher than it is for the average cat) but I shudder to think of a child being subjected to that amount of unfounded opinion and speculation.