To what extent is determining gender for sporting competition a scientific question?


 “Gender testing was introduced at the 1968 Olympic games to address concerns that women with ambiguous physiological genders would have an unfair advantage. This has proven to be problematic for a number of reasons. The chromosomal standard is problematic as non-disjunction can lead to situations where an individual might technically be male, but not define herself that way. People with two X and Y can develop hormonally as a female.
The practice of gender testing was discontinued in 1996 in part because of human rights issues including the right to self-expression and the right to identify one’s own gender. Rather than being a scientific question, it is more fairly a social question.”

(BIOLOGY Course Companion, 2014)

The possibility that men might pose as women and be unfair competitors in women’s sports is an outrageous concept to both the athletes and the public. Since the 1930s, media reports have fuelled claims that individuals who once competed as female athletes were in actuality men.

At the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) began establishing rules for women athlete’s eligibility. Initially, physical examination was used as a method for gender verification, but this plan was widely disliked. This led to sex chromatin testing (buccal smear) being introduced at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968.

The principle was that genetic females (46, XX) show a single X-chromatic mass, whereas males (46, XY) do not.

Unfortunately, sex chromatin analysis fell out of use by geneticists after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began implementing gender verification. The lack of laboratories performing the test heightened the problem of errors in interpretation by inexperienced workers, yielding false-positive and false-negative results.

However, an even greater problem is that there exists phenotypic females with male sex chromatin patterns (e.g. androgen insensitivity, XY gonadal dysgenesis). These individuals have NO athletic advantage as a result of their genetic abnormality and should not be excluded from competition.

Only the chromosomal (genetic) sex is analysed by sex chromatin testing, not the anatomical or psychosocial status.

For all the above reasons sex chromatin testing unfairly excludes many athletes.

These tests fail to address the fundamental injustices of laboratory based gender verification tests. The IAAF considered the issue in 1991 and 1992, and concluded that gender verification testing wasn’t needed. This was thought to be especially true because of the current use of urine testing. Males masquerading as females in these circumstances are extremely unlikely. Screening for gender is no longer undertaken at IAAF competitions.

muscle system
Anatomical differences between female body and male body

table men vs women
men vs women

The testing is humiliating, socially insensitive, and not entirely accurate or effective, causing it to some under scrutiny for those who have acknowledged these facts. It is especially difficult and problematic in the case of people who could be considered intersexual. Genetic differences can allow a person to have a male genetic make-up and female anatomy or body chemistry.

A resolution was passed at the 1996 International Olympic Committee (IOC) World Conference on Women and Health “to discontinue the current process of gender verification during the Olympic Games.” The International Olympic Committee’s board voted to discontinue the practice in June 1999. In individual cases the IOC stills holds on to the right to test on gender.

Newer rules permit transsexual athletes to compete in the Olympics after having completed sex reassignment surgery, being legally recognized as a member of the sex they wish to compete as, and having undergone two years of hormonal therapy (unless they transitioned before puberty).

The International Association of Athletics Federations ceased sex screening for all athletes in 1992, but retains the option of assessing the sex of a participant should suspicions arise. This was invoked most recently in August 2009 with the mandated testing of South African athlete Caster Semenya. This is a sad an infuriating test that was done, insulting Semenya’s talent as an athlete.


Here is a link that explains in full detail the injustice a Spanish hurdler, María José Martínez Patiño, faced when she failed the gender test.

In conclusion, gender verification for sporting competition should be considered only a scientific question if the gender of all the competitors are going to be determined in order for the competition to be fair since anatomically, males are stronger and have more endurance than most females. Nevertheless, if a person identifies themselves as a female and has the body of one then they should be allowed to compete in the female category. Having a genetic disorder that determines you as a male doesn’t justify you to be excluded from the female category since in every other aspect you are one. If this is the reason for why one should be excluded from competing as a female, then every person with a genetic disorder that gives them an advantage should also be disqualified if it is “fairness” that is in question (eg. Eero Mäntyranta, a gold medalist cross-country skier with a genetic disorder that resulted in an increase of up to 50% of his oxygen carrying capacity).

It is unfair that they view the need to do gender testing just based on their physical appearance and that an “underdog” beat out the competition. Sports are extremely competitive, but it should bring unity, not discrimination.

Here is an amazing video that explains the unfairness of using gender verification/testing to prohibit athletes, especially females, for participating in competitions they have rightly trained for.


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