Sex testing in sport
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Sex testing in sport remains a contentious issue, even in the 21st century. How can the sporting world move forward on this issue?

(Image, from L to R: Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi)

Last week, two Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were disqualified from the women’s 400-meter race at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, due to their naturally high testosterone levels. They had failed World Athletics’ policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD), popularly referred to as their ‘sex test.’

Sex testing in sport has been around since the early 1930s. World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federation), the global governing body of international athletics, first started sex testing in female athletes at the European Championships in 1950. The reason given was a fear amongst organisers and fans that men with a physical advantage would cheat and participate as women.

What do the authorities say?

Sporting authorities, in particular World Athletics, have generally enforced strict standards over the years to maintain a ‘level playing field’. In 2014, Indian athlete Dutee Chand was not allowed to participate at the Commonwealth Games. The Athletic Federation of India announced that she had ‘hyperandrogenism’ (increased levels of androgynous testosterone) and was therefore ineligible to compete as a female. Chand appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) and won her case. World Athletics’ sex testing policy and regulations were subsequently suspended for two years.

However, World Athletics revised its ruling in April 2018. It again classified the eligibility of women athletes based on their testosterone levels. World Athletics’ regulations focused on the legality of women with differences of sex development (DSD), and their participation in events from 400m to the mile. Women with DSD would have to reduce and maintain their testosterone levels to 5nmol/l or less in order to compete. They reasoned that women with naturally high testosterone levels, who also have bodies that are highly sensitive to that testosterone, have an advantage in certain events.

Caster Semenya, an Olympic gold medalist, challenged this ruling. She claimed that World Athletics was specifically targeting her. Semenya’s supporters have criticised the lack of evidence for classifying female athletes’ eligibility based on testosterone levels, as well as World Athletics’ legitimacy to define the sex of any individual.

In 2019 however, the Court of Arbitration ruled against Semenya. It agreed with World Athletics’ regulations, ruling that female track athletes with elevated testosterone would not be able to compete at events unless they take medication to suppress those levels.

What does the science say?

Research and data on this subject is conflicting. The 2018 World Athletics’ regulations were based on a single study conducted by their own research team in 2017. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Stephane Bermon, stated at the time: “The latest research we have undertaken, and data we have compiled, show that there is a performance advantage in female athletes with DSD over the track distances covered by this rule,”

Several individuals and groups question the validity of such research, however. They claim there are significant flaws in the data that led to unreliable results. Other research has shown that, while testosterone can stimulate muscle mass and endurance to some extent, there is no proof it improves overall athletic performance. Moreover, there is no existing valid test to check the sensitivity of one’s body to testosterone.

According to an article by Julian Savulescu, it is impossible to quantify the effect of testosterone on athletic capabilities: “The difference testosterone makes between males and females in all events is estimated to be up to 12% (all other items being equal). But Semenya’s best time is only 2% faster than her competitors. It is not possible to determine how much of this 2% is due to testosterone, and how much due to other factors about her as an athlete, or her psychology.”

A human rights point of view

While the data is conflicting, a human rights perspective on this issue is clear – sex testing is a violation of human rights. According to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, “Sex testing violates a range of internationally protected fundamental rights including to privacy, dignity, health, non-discrimination, freedom from ill-treatment, and employment rights.”

This is a view shared by several organisations and activists around the world, who are lobbying to end this practice, or at least find a much more dignified, respectful and inclusive solution. The United Nations Human Rights Council reacted to World Athletics’ 2018 ruling and stated that their gender testing regulations were “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful.”

Critics have also questioned if it is ethical to force athletes who are not ill to take medication with potential side effects. The World Medical Association has said, “The ruling would constrain the athletes concerned to take unjustified medication, not based on medical need” and asked doctors to shun World Athletics.

A feminist point of view

These regulations are deeply discriminatory, and are rooted in misogyny and racism. The issue of sex testing in athletes comes up only in women’s sport, and men’s sport is not subject to such humiliating standards. Any hormonal or physical advantage that men have is chalked up to luck, and no regulations are put in place to regulate their bodies.

The issue of sex testing follows a rigid perception of femininity that is Eurocentric. In society at large, women of colour, especially Black women, are regarded as less feminine than their white counterparts. This societal discrimination has permeated into sporting events, where female athletes have to abide by traditional notions of femininity to be deemed eligible to compete.

Given that sex testing is not conducted on all female athletes but only those that do not visibly fit the mold of femininity, these rules expose the underlying racial and sexist biases of authorities.

These regulations are also highly paternalistic and disregard the differences amongst women. By determining elevated testosterone levels as the sole cause of women’s success in sports, sex testing disregards the other factors that go into becoming an elite athlete, including dedicated training and sporting skills. It also reinforces the understanding that sports is a male domain, alienating women from the fold.

As the world moves to make itself more inclusive to all people, regardless of their race, gender, sexual identity, ability or any other identity marker, the sporting world needs to keep pace. By imposing such rigid standards, the sporting world is excluding potential athletes at both the grassroots and elite levels who may not conform to traditional gender identities.

If the sporting world wants to be a force of progressive change, it has to move forward and not hang on to antiquated beliefs. In order to effect change, sport needs to look inward at the ways in which it remains a discriminatory field for many. It is high time for sport to change its ways in this regard. 


Operating Team