This new policy represents a reversal of more than a half-century of Olympic sex testing and transgender regulations, which included invasive examinations and medically unnecessary procedures.
A RECORD number of LGBTQ athletes – three times the number as in Rio – competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And for the first time, openly transgender and nonbinary athletes took part in the Games as well.
Skateboarder Alana Smith and BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe represented Team USA, New Zealand athlete Laurel Hubbard competed in weightlifting and Canadian soccer player Quinn helped their team win the gold medal.
Yet, the historic nature of the Tokyo Olympics was incomplete, as controversial rules rendered some athletes ineligible – most notably two-time gold medalist Caster Semenya.
The South African runner was unable to defend her Olympic title due to restrictive eligibility regulations for female classification enforced by World Athletics, the international governing body.
On November 16, however, Olympic leaders released the “IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations,” a proposal aiming to reshape these regulations.
The document provides guidance to sports organizations on how to develop participation standards. It includes 10 guiding principles: inclusion; prevention of harm; nondiscrimination; fairness; no presumption of advantage; evidenced-based approach; primacy of health and bodily autonomy; stakeholder-centered approach; right to privacy; and periodic reviews.
This new policy represents a reversal of more than a half-century of Olympic sex testing and transgender regulations, which included invasive examinations and medically unnecessary procedures. These rules developed around racially biased stereotypes about femininity and relied on faulty science to exclude athletes based on unfounded concerns over fairness.
In the 1930s, Olympic officials started to require physical exams for women whom they believed looked too masculine. This eventually changed to compulsory, laboratory-based sex testing for all female Olympians during the Cold War.
The Soviet Union returned to the Olympics in 1952 and quickly surpassed the United States in the medal count, bolstered by the victories of Soviet women.
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For well over a decade, Eastern bloc Olympians dominated events Western bloc countries considered inappropriate for women, such as Nordic skiing. For example, at the 1964 Winter Olympics, USSR cross-country skiers won five of the six individual medals available for women.
The high political stakes of Cold War competition prompted Western sports leaders, athletes and newspapers to challenge the legitimacy of these victories by questioning the womanhood of female Eastern bloc competitors.
Writing ahead of the 1956 Olympics, Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich predicted the Soviet women would dominate “because they have muscles, big ones, in the places United States gals don’t want ’em.”
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These complaints led to Olympic officials implementing compulsory, on-site chromosome tests for all women at the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
But testing failed to alleviate concerns, especially after East German women catapulted to the top of the podium in the 1970s.
Western officials and athletes again criticized the muscular appearances of these winners and openly questioned whether they were male impostors. While it was later discovered that East Germany was guilty of widespread, state-sponsored doping, fears of gender deception at the time created more support for sex testing.
The Cold War rivalry helps explain why the International Olympic Committee maintained sex testing until 1999, despite medical experts warning that a single criterion was inadequate to determine sex and that the testing regime discriminated against women, rather than uncovering male impostors.
Stop the ‘misuse’ of the test
Even Murray Barr, the scientist whose discovery made the chromosome control possible, called on Olympic leaders to stop the “misuse” of the test in sports in 1987.
Endocrinologists and geneticists worried about the harm the tests inflicted upon women with sex variations. Women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), who had XY chromosomes but due to a resistance to androgens appeared and identified as women, notably fell victim to the check.
One Olympic official speculated that this happened at least once or twice every Games.
Yet, instead of heeding these calls, sports leaders encouraged women who “failed” the test to retire quickly and quietly.
The consequences of ignoring this suggestion were severe. In 1985, Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño refused to feign an injury and leave track and field after sex test results prohibited her from competing at the World University Games.
Instead of complying, she defiantly participated in the 1986 Spanish national championships. Newspapers around the world responded by printing her medical information and questioning her sex – an experience Martínez-Patiño likened to being raped.
Her public plight increased the opposition to compulsory testing. By 1996, leading experts and medical societies called on the IOC to halt the practice, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Endocrine Society.
Due to this public pressure, the IOC abandoned mandatory sex control in 1999. Yet, it maintained the right to verify the sex of any woman it considered suspicious.
Subsequently, however, the IOC used this power to target Black women for additional exams, which highlighted the racist assumptions underlying the practice. As with the Eastern bloc women whose muscular physiques drove demands for sex testing, Black women – especially from the Global South – defied Western notions of femininity.
Muscular physiques and athleticism cast suspicion upon these competitors, because those characteristics were at odds with widely accepted ideas of White femininity.
The ‘Stockholm Consensus’
And these notions of femininity also drove the IOC’s first set of policies toward transgender women, enacted in 2003.
The “Stockholm Consensus” required Olympic transgender hopefuls to undergo “surgical anatomical changes,” obtain legal recognition by “the appropriate official authorities” and verify that “hormonal therapy” had been administered.
IOC leaders suggested the policy welcomed transgender athletes into Olympic competition, but, in reality, the restrictive protocols sidelined most prospects. The stipulations were invasive, expensive and unethical.
Not all transgender athletes desired medical interventions, and mandating surgical procedures for sports participation violated their right to bodily autonomy. What’s more, many athletes could not obtain the required legal recognition from their countries.
Yet, rather than backing away from these policies, the IOC doubled down by embracing an upper limit on testosterone levels for women with sex variations in 2011 and for transgender women in 2015.
Experts immediately criticized the IOC for reintroducing sex testing via a new, singular criterion to verify sex. Others argued that testosterone was not the only factor in athleticism and that other elements – such as lean body mass, financial resources and access to coaching – also played important roles in developing athletic abilities.
In 2018, World Athletics narrowed its testosterone ceiling requirement to include only women who competed in the 400-meter to one-mile races.
The governing body based this decision on heavily debated research – the British Journal of Sports Medicine recently issued a correction suggesting the 2017 study did not confirm a causal relationship between elevated testosterone levels and performance advantages.
To critics, this new policy seemed to target Black women, including Semenya, since they frequently won these track events, while World Athletics excluded women competing in the hammer throw and pole vault, who are most often White, from testing requirements – despite the study containing evidence that higher-than-average testosterone levels provided an advantage in those events.
World-renowned runners from the Global South came forward and detailed the harms caused by the testosterone thresholds. They reported being subjected to invasive examinations, coerced into medically unnecessary procedures and forced to manipulate their bodies in ways that left them physically unwell.
Semenya explained that World Athletics used her “as a human guinea pig” and “caused her great pain” by requiring her to take hormonal drugs to lower her testosterone levels. Along with physical harms, the athletes also described experiencing social stigmatization and negative psychological repercussions, which at times included suicidal ideation.
The IOC’s new framework attempts to right these wrongs. Current Olympic leaders are calling on sports governing bodies to avoid the harms past leaders caused women.
The document suggests sports organizations should neither use “invasive physical examinations” nor require athletes to “undergo medically unnecessary procedures of treatment” for eligibility purposes, two items aiming to correct past protocols.
While the IOC acknowledges the importance of fairness and evidence-based science in sport, it also recognizes the ways in which previous protocols excluded people based on fears and stereotypes.
The framework therefore notes that athletes should not be barred “on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearances and/or transgender status.”
In other words, the IOC’s inclusion framework is the first step in countering a long history of testing predicated upon assumptions about what it means to be a woman in sport.
• Lindsay Parks Pieper is associate professor of sport management at the University of Lynchburg and author of “Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports.”
The Washington Post