The History of Gender Testing in Women's Athletics

·7 min read

Gender testing as a concept isn’t something that international sport is alien to and has seen incidents popping up for more than a few decades. It reared its ugly head yet again just before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when Seema Punia had questioned fellow discus athlete Kamalpreet Kaur’s biology.

Previously, the likes of Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya have been among those affected by this situation and both have taken the sport’s governing body to the courts on the matter. One of the less-discussed topics in sport, it was picked up by Bollywood recently with the movie Rashmi Rocket in which Taapsee Pannu plays the lead role.

Also Read: Review: ‘Rashmi Rocket’ Keeps Us Hooked Till the Finish Line

In the movie, a champion athlete has won a bagful of medals in her career, bringing laurels to her country before it all came crashing down, after she fails a gender test, or a hyperandrogenism test.

One of the first incidents dates to the 1930s, and ahead of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage had advocated for systematic medical examinations of athletes competing in women's events. It was only in 1967 that the IAAF adopted a laboratory-based chromosome assessment. And a year later, the IOC began comprehensive gender testing. From 1972 to 1984, 13 women were reported to have failed gender testing. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ended mandatory sex testing in 1992 and the IOC dropped blanket testing in 1999 — but they continued to conduct medical evaluations on a case-by-case basis.

Here’s a look at the athletes who had question marks raised against their biology:

Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh

In 1936, Polish Stella Walsh, the gold medallist from the previous Olympic Games in 1932, was narrowly beaten by an 18-year-old sprinter from Missouri, Helen Stephens. Walsh had set the 100m record in Los Angeles.

And while there were murmurs about their biology, it was Stephens who was first tested by the Olympic committee – she had to undergo (and passed) the first physical inspection to verify her gender.

Both athletes had been accused of being male impostors.

Ewa Klobukowska

Ewa Klobukowska hailed from Poland and won a Gold in the 4x100 relay and Bronze in the 100m in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after which the media wrote about her appearance. It was in 1967 that Klobukowska became the first athlete to be tested with the IAAF’s new chromosome test, which was viewed as a “simpler, objective, and more dignified” alternative to the physical examinations.

The test in 1967, which she failed brought her career to an end before the IOC changed the test the following year. However, instead of stripping her off her medals, the IOC returned them, 31 years later in 1999. Hers was also the case of the first disqualification on such grounds.

Also Read: Dear Dutee Chand, Stay True to Yourself. We’re so Proud of You

María José Martínez-Patiño

A Spanish hurdler, Martinez-Patino was the first athlete to formally protest the chromosome test and the IAAF changed their decision to expel her and reinstated her.

In 1985, the test was conducted on her in Japan at the World University Games in Kobe where she won first place before her test results were reportedly leaked. That led to her records being erased and her being dropped from the national team.

“I felt ashamed and embarrassed,” Martínez-Patiño wrote in a 2005 account of her sex testing in the medical journal The Lancet.

After being declared ineligible to participate, Martínez-Patiño with the support of several prominent geneticists fought the chromosome rule and was eventually allowed to compete in the qualifying trials for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Unfortunately, she missed qualification by a ten-hundredths of a second.

Santhi Soundarajan

In 2006, Indian athletics was hit by the gender test controversy for the first time when Soundarajan was in the spotlight. After claiming Silver in the 800m at the Asian Games in Qatar, she faced some of the darkest days as tests showed that she carried a Y chromosome, failing the gender test.

She was stripped of the Silver medal and soon after returned to her village as she battled depression from the humiliating episode. The former India athlete had tried to end her life as well.

Also Read: Documents Reveal New Details in Bitter Semenya-IAAF Battle

File picture of Caster Semenya (left) and her lawyer Gregory Nott arriving for the first day of a hearing at the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
File picture of Caster Semenya (left) and her lawyer Gregory Nott arriving for the first day of a hearing at the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS, in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Caster Semenya

It all started off in 2009 for Semenya after she won 800m title in the World Championships in Berlin as her rapid improvements seemed odd according to the IAAF, who asked her to undergo the gender test. The IAAF says it was "obliged to investigate" after she made improvements of 25 seconds at 1500 m and eight seconds at 800 m — "the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use".

Plenty of back and forth happened on the matter between all stakeholders for the next decade before the sports world’s top court, CAS, ruled (in 2018) that Semenya and other female runners with unusually high testosterone must take medication to reduce their levels of the male sex hormone if they want to compete in certain events.

As she looked to keep her sporting career alive at the highest level, Semenya even tried her luck in football, before giving the Olympics yet another attempt in the 200m. Semenya had started off with the 800m, and participated in 1500m, 4x400m, 400m, and even the 5000m events as she tried to stay in competition.

Semenya continues to fight against the testosterone regulations in court. She has launched three legal appeals against the rules, calling them unfair and discriminatory, and appears determined to wage her legal fight to the very end. Having failed in appeals at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the Swiss supreme court, Semenya has now lodged an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.

Also Read: Caster Semenya Says She Won’t Take Drugs to Reduce Testosterone

Dutee Chand

India was hit again with the gender test controversy in 2014, ahead of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, when Dutee Chand, a 200m athlete, was dropped from the national squad by the Athletics Federation of India, who stated that hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to participate.

The AFI was subjected to widespread criticism understandably and Dutee soon enough resorted to legal action. In July 2015, CAS suspended IAAF’s policies on hyperandrogenism, effectively removing the suspension of Dutee.

Dutee since has been competing in the India colours and was also part of the contingent at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Also Read: Seema Punia Writes to AFI: What is Hyperandrogenism & Its Rules?

What Are the Rules?

According to the rule book used by the IAAF, the question surrounding hyperandrogenism and the sport does not apply to field events, which in turn could result in the AFI not doing too much about Seema’s request eventually.

If an athlete falls under the IAAF regulations for Female Athletes with Differences of Sexual Development, they are barred from events that range from 400m to 1 mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m, 1500m, 1-mile races, and combined events over the same distances.

While hyperandrogenism is an area of concern in some event, the IAAF rules state:

Female athletes who do not wish to lower their testosterone levels will still be eligible to compete in:

(i) Competitions that are not international competitions: In all track events, field events, and combined events, including the restricted events; and

(ii) International competitions: In all track events, field events, and combined events, other than the restricted events

(With inputs from BBC, CNN, and BuzzFeednews.com)

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