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No to sex-tests of female Olympians

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/2/2014 (1294 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With the Canadian Olympic Committee very close to finalizing its roster of athletes who will represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Olympic fever builds in Canada. Yet the athletes face pressures and uncertainty unheard of for previous generations of Olympians.

Concerns about terrorism, homophobia, free speech and athlete safety have been widely discussed, but half of our Canadian athletes face one additional uneasy prospect: the possibility of having to assure a committee of "experts" they are eligible to compete in the women's events.

Caster Semenya celebrates after winning gold at the world championships in Berlin in 2009.


Caster Semenya celebrates after winning gold at the world championships in Berlin in 2009.

As has been the case throughout the history of the Olympics, sex verification requirements are only for women.

Originally, a doctor's note declaring a competitor to be a woman sufficed. With such a note, the International Olympic Committee issued a "femininity certificate."

As Cold War tensions helped increase the perceived worth of women's sports, female athletes had to participate in "nude parades" to show they were women. These involved marching in front of a panel of doctors. Records show this happened at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica and the 1967 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.

Prior to the 1968 Olympics, the medical commission of the IOC developed an alternative to the nude parades. From 1968-1999, women athletes had to prove they had XX chromosomes -- the pattern typically associated with females.

This process was considered a vast improvement over the nude parades -- until it was recognized the test was not entirely accurate, and that people with a female body type could possess chromosomal patterns beyond the standard XX.

The IOC abandoned the chromosome test prior to the 2000 Olympics. But that decision did not spell the end of sex testing. As anyone following the plight of South African runner Caster Semenya in 2009 remembers, sex testing is alive and well in the Olympics.

Sex testing now involves a team of biological sex and gender experts running a battery of tests. To be cleared to run, Semenya had to undergo a visual examination of her body, chromosome testing, a gynecological exam, organ X-rays and a lengthy interview.

The International Association of Athletics Federations initiated the investigation based on concerns expressed in media sources about Semenya's masculine appearance.

It then released a new policy in 2011 that remains in force today. The policy defines women not based on their bodies, chromosomes, or doctors' assurances, but on their functional testosterone levels.

Women can be required to participate in the sex testing process if the IOC's medical commission has suspicions the athlete is intersex or has what the policy describes as a disorder of sexual development.

The goal of the policy is to ensure women with high testosterone levels do not have unfair advantages over their competitors. Yet strong, muscular women who dress in masculine-typical clothing must beware.

Recent photos of Semenya show the once self-declared tomboy looking noticeably different. Since being "approved" to compete in the women's category, she is photographed frequently with long hair, wearing makeup, and often sporting pink attire.

With only one known incident of a man competing in a women's event in the Olympic movement's 118-year history -- a German high jumper in the 1930s -- the policy has been critiqued heavily by feminist sports advocates and scholars.

The Canadian government released a statement last week aimed at educating visitors to Sochi on security precautions. With threats of terrorism looming over the Olympics, it is not surprising the issue of sex verification has fallen from the forefront of Olympic controversies.

Yet Canadian athletes will risk some of their basic human rights to compete at the world's premier sporting event. We owe it to them to challenge the continued application of this flawed policy, and to ensure none of them face the invasive scrutiny Caster Semenya experienced.


Sarah Teetzel is an assistant professor of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba.


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Updated on Thursday, February 6, 2014 at 10:39 AM CST: Corrects references to chromosomes.

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