Gender-testing for ‘suspicious-looking’ female Olympic athletes in Beijing

// 29 July 2008

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Women athletes who might secretly be men (or, as the Times Online charmingly phrases it, “suspicious-looking” woman athletes) will be forced to take a sex test in the Beijing Olympic Games, Olympic officials have announced.

“Suspect athletes will be evaluated from their external appearance by experts,” said Professor Tian Qinjie of Peking Union Medical College Hospital, who will be in charge of the testing. “They will then undergo four tests, including blood tests, to examine their sex hormones, genes and chromosomes for sex determination.”

The sex-testing is a huge step back for the International Olympic Committee, which stopped the practice on ethical grounds in 1999. It’s an invasive and humiliating process, in which women who ‘fail’ will have to endure a physiological examination of their genitals, according to the New York Times.

Mary Peters, Britain’s gold medal-winning pentathlete at the 1972 Munich Olympics, described the sex tests as “the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known… The doctors proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance, amounted to a grope.”

Not only is the test a massive invasion of privacy, it’s also laughably ineffective. Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to sex than male or female. Depending on who you believe, between 0.018% and 1.7% of people are born with some degree of sexual ambiguity or chromosomal abnormalities. That means that somewhere between one in 500 and one in 59 women have a condition that will give them no competitive advantage, but will make then ‘fail’ the test.

So sex-testing is invasive and ineffective. What else? Well, it also reveals some rather nasty sexism and homophobia. After all, no male athletes will be subjected to this. And not all female athletes will be tested, only those who look ‘suspicious’.

What, exactly, does ‘suspicious’ mean? Will they only test women who they, these ‘experts’, decide look unwomanly? How about women who cut their hair into ‘unfeminine’ styles, or women who don’t shave their legs? Will women wearing blue trainers be eyed suspiciously, while those in pink trainers can continue unhindered?

Or perhaps the femininity of female athletes will be judged on performance rather than aesthetics. Men are naturally faster and stronger than women, so presumably if an athlete excels in her discipline she will arouse suspicion. Ladies! Don’t jump too high, or punch too hard – someone might think you’re not really a woman.

As for trans people – officially, and perhaps surprisingly, sex-testing doesn’t really affect them. Since 2004, people who have experienced gender realignment and hormone treatment have been able to compete on the same basis as cisexual people. We can only speculate what would happen if a transwoman’s sex was considered ‘suspicious’ by the Olympic authorities.

The only thing about sex and gender that the Olympic committee know for sure is this: the only women who are undeniably 100% women are royalty, as Princess Anne was the only female athlete who didn’t have to have to submit a sex test at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. And of course it had nothing to do with the fact that she was the daughter of Canada’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.

What makes a ‘real woman’? Is it chromosones, testosterone levels, sex organs, or a love of the colour pink? I don’t know, and actually I don’t care. But what I do know is that I sure as hell don’t want to be told what it is to be a woman by a group of self-appointed experts from the Olympic Committee.

[Cross-posted at Lesbilicious]

Comments From You

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 29 July 2008 at 11:21 pm

Spot on, Milly. What a disappointing step backwards.

m Andrea // Posted 30 July 2008 at 4:59 am

You either need the body of a girl to express particular character traits, or you don’t.

There’s no middle ground to that argument, as much as you would wish there to be.

polly styrene // Posted 30 July 2008 at 7:09 am

Well there’s nothing new about this. Anne Fausto Sterling describes in her book ‘sexing the body’ how a female athlete with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome – AIS (where someone basically has XY chromosomes but external female genitals) had to go through an appeals process to be allowed to compete in the olympics in the 70s.

The point being that it was eventually decided that she was female for the purposes of the Olympics. So the position with regard to women who have so called ‘intersex’ conditions has in fact already been established as far as I know. Most so called ‘intersex’ conditions are in fact chromosomal variations, and don’t affect external genital appearance to any significant degree. For instance Turner’s Syndrome, where a woman has only one x chromosome, is classified as an ‘intersex’ condition, but it is untrue and hurtful to represent women with this condition as anything but ordinary women. See

There is a lot of misunderstanding about intersex people – most of us probably know somebody who is ‘intersex’ and don’t realise. Intersex people are NOT generally speaking ‘hermaphrodites’ and intersex has nothing to do with gender dysphoria. There’s some excellent information here from the UK AIS support group.

Helen G // Posted 30 July 2008 at 8:21 am

Interestingly, it seems that the Chinese have made this decision independently of the 1999 decision of the International Olympic Committee.

Also, the Organisation Intersex International has a press release (link here) which summarises the proposal quite succinctly: “Men” masquerading as “women” have nothing to do with intersexed and transitioned athletes, who will all be the victims of this so called “sex-change crackdown”.

Excellent first post, btw. ^_^

chem_fem // Posted 30 July 2008 at 10:32 am

Excellent post!

So angry that they made this step backwards.

Saranga // Posted 30 July 2008 at 11:51 am

That sickens me, that really does.

Anne Onne // Posted 30 July 2008 at 6:10 pm

Great post. This is disturbing on many levels, because it is potentially so humiliating for all the women being checked, but especially for those who ‘fail’. There really isn’t nearly enough to suggest that ‘suspicious’ women would have an unfair advantage for them to have any justification for this. Admittedly, in my books, they’d need a lot of justification, because we’re talking about something quite invasive and public. This just isn’t really necessary, and is inhumane. Considering the problems with drugs that athletic competitions have, I should think they’ve got a far more obvious thing to worry about.

Jo // Posted 6 August 2008 at 4:17 am

While I agree that being tested in itself is a humiliation (they think Im a man?!)and I have great reservations about the ethics of compelling anyone to have recordable genetic tests performed, I have to point out that some of your resevations are based on out-of-date science. Genetic and chromosomal studies are completely conclusive in sex determination. And should mean that noone need be ‘groped’ in this day and age. There are some chromosomal or genetic anomalies that mean sex is indeterminable or arguable, but these are very rare (Turner’s syndrome, CAIS, etc..) and are specifically identified by these tests. By which I mean that the subject wont be labelled as ‘possibly a bloke’; they’ll be identified as Turner’s syndrome (for example). And that particular condition should not prevent participation as a woman and results should be treated with medical confidentiality where no foul play is detected. It is no different to drug testing in that respect. And at the end of the day, noone who is concerned about their Karyotype need compete in the olympic games. The fact that men have deliberately stolen, fraudulently, the titles of women in these games should concern feminists. I am undecided in my favour of these proposed testing regimes, but I do think that a man pretending to be a woman to achieve personal or national kudos should be a worry. It has been done. Men are physiologically different to women and have inherent advantages in athletics. That’s not an equality issue, it’s a fact. It would be sad to see women’s achievements in this area be hijacked by men.

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