Olympics intersex rule: Faster, Higher, Stronger – except you

olympics intersex rule faster higher stronger testosterone
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Olympic regulation excludes some female athletes unless they artificially lower their natural testosterone levels. The Olympics intersex rule puts the lie to the Games motto, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’. For those athletes, it might better read, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – except you!’

Read also: The sordid history of gender testiing and the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games celebrate natural athletic exceptionalism and prohibit performance enhancement by way of doping. Yet, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandates doping some women to suppress their natural abilities.

Nature does not draw an unyielding line in the sand between men and women. But the IOC apparently knows better. It insists on building an arbitrary fence at the expense of women considered ‘too masculine’. However, that fence has wandered all over the playing field for decades.

The whole sorry story began during the 1936 Berlin Olympics with lesbian athlete Helen Stephens.

The tall, ‘flat-chested, long-legged, masculine Stephens’ defeated the favourite in the 100-metre dash. A journalist called her a ‘dressed-up man’, and the IOC demanded a gender test. Helen underwent the first Olympic genital inspection. She was pronounced a woman after the examination revealed the requisite vagina, clitoris and pubic hair!

She’s got balls

Think pubic hair as proof of womanhood is crazy?

Well, the crazy never ends.

The expression ‘she’s got balls’ did not come from nowhere. While used to praise the brave and denigrate the assertive, it’s also a slur against ‘butch’ women who do not fit the ideal of genteel, lily-white femininity. Of course, balls —testes — secrete testosterone. That magic ingredient supposedly makes a man a man, and according to the IOC’s most recent gender theory, also makes a woman a man.

Over the decades, numerous women were accused of being men.

Newspapers and sporting officials pilloried women with intersex traits as cheats. Track athlete Zdenek Koubek retired from women’s competition in 1935 to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Newspapers falsely claimed he was a man who became a woman and then a man again after competing. Very Victor/Victoria.

Ewa Kłobukowska won Olympic gold in 1964, but other athletes and the media questioned her femininity. In 1966, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, now World Athletics) insisted on a gender test. Ewa stripped off for a panel of three gynecologists who pronounced her female. But the chatter kept up, and in 1967, the IAAF stipulated a chromosome test.

Ewa failed. The IAAF vilified her as a ‘male imposter’. Then, the IOC took back her medals.

The following year, Ewa gave birth to a child.

Gender tests, always exclusively for women, have included naked parades, invasive and degrading genital examinations, chromosome testing and more recently, blood tests for testosterone levels.

And always, the gender controversy remains focussed on those women who do not conform to traditional European ideals of femininity.

Olympic heptathlete Jane Frederick said in 1976, “What they’re saying to us is ‘Prove it! You’re so good — we just can’t believe you’re a woman’.”

The IOC always had a problem with women.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, conceived the Games for ‘the exaltation of male athleticism’. Of course, he did envisage a role for women. The fairer sex could sit on the sidelines and clap for their winning menfolk!

The Baron later ridiculed the idea of women competing as ‘impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper’.


However, in 1900, the IOC allowed women to compete in a handful of competitions. They deemed traditional leisure amusements of the aristocracy sufficiently genteel for ‘the weaker sex’. Decorous activities like lawn tennis, golf and croquet — nothing that involved breaking into a sweat or, God forbid, grunting. Not until 1928 did the IOC risk ladies ‘endangering their reproductive health’ in track and field events. Yes. Men said that! Even esteemed doctors of medicine said that.

Things have come a long way, and the IOC undoubtedly made progress towards gender equality in recent years. The Tokyo Olympics will include at least one male and one female athlete from every participating country. That will be a first.

However, the treatment of female athletes with intersex traits or hyperandrogenism remains unconscionable.


Olympic regulation demands that competitors in women’s middle-distance races have below 5 nanomoles of testosterone per litre of blood (nmol/L).

People with intersex traits or hyperandrogenism often have a higher level.

Experts disagree on a ‘normal’ level. However, it would seem to range somewhere around 8.4 to 31.8 nmol/L in males and from .3 to 2.7 nmol/L in females.

But a study of 693 athletes during the London Olympics brings what is ‘normal’ into question. 13.7% of the women had testosterone levels above 2.7, while 16.5% of the men came in under 8.4.

The study also showed ‘high levels with complete overlap between the sexes’. If gender is binary, and testosterone levels define gender, how can there be an overlap?

No one ever suggested that male athletes with lower levels should be forced to raise them. Indeed, they would face expulsion if they did. The World Anti-Doping Agency bans androgenic agents which increase testosterone.

Anyway, no study has yet proven that naturally high testosterone levels gifts an unfair advantage to athletes. (Users of performance-enhancing drugs achieve much higher levels of testosterone than those with naturally high levels.)

However, despite all the focus on testosterone, many other genetic factors undoubtedly endow superior athletic prowess.

But only genetic variations associated with gender are used to exclude or disqualify athletes from the Olympics.

Among other variations — height, muscle mass, skeletal structure, tendon elasticity, heart and lung size, aerobic capacity, flexibility, coordination, and intellectual ability — all contribute to athletic success.

The editors of Scientific American explained the ‘superhuman’ exceptionalism of champions.

“Elite athletes are by definition physiological outliers because of their strength, speed and reflexes. Natural hormonal variations, similar to other intrinsic biological qualities — superior oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, for example — are part of that mix.”

Beyond genetic variations, factors like diet, training regimens, and motivation contribute to athletic ability. However, studies of athletic performance within families suggest that genetic factors underlie from 30 to 80% of the difference between individuals.

Yet of all genetic variables, the IOC only penalises high testosterone levels. And then only in women.

Olympic champion Michael Phelps exemplifies the contribution of genetic factors to athletic greatness.

Michael Phelps

No one has won more Olympic medals than Michael Phelps, undoubtedly because of natural genetic variables and hard work. Phelps underwent drug tests over and above anti-doping guidelines during his career.

Tests show Michael Phelps’ body produces less lactic acid than most people. Lactic acid causes fatigue, gifting the swimmer greater endurance.

Additionally, he has a longer torso and shorter legs than average, larger hands and feet and a wider arm span. His chest powers him through the pool, and his legs produce less drag. His hands and feet displace more water, and he can reach further than other swimmers.

The swimmers’ double-jointed ankles bend 15% more than his rivals, advantaging his kick. Also, he is hyper-jointed in the chest. Kicking from his chest instead of the ribs increases his thrust.

The IOC celebrates the athletic exceptionalism of Michael Phelps. During his career, it never questioned the many genetic variables that contributed to making him a champion. Along with, it must always be remembered, extreme dedication and a formidable training schedule. The IOC never asked Michael Phelps to artificially increase his natural lactic acid to level the playing field for his competitors.

But that brings us to Caster Semenya, another great athlete possessed of genetic variations, as well as extreme dedication and a formidable training schedule.

Caster Semenya

After decades of debacles, rumour and the relentless persecution of ‘masculine’ women, World Athletes stopped gender testing in 1992. The IOC voted to stop chromosome testing in 1999.

Then Caster Semenya came along.

In 2009, she won the 800m at the African Junior Championships with a time seven seconds better than her personal best of seven months previous. The rapid improvement led to speculation. She took another second off that time when she won gold at the World Championships later that year.

Sixth-place getter Elisa Cusma of Italy would not have achieved a place even without Caster Semenya. But she felt cheated anyway, echoing the slurs thrown at Helen Stephens in the 30s and Ewa Kłobukowska in the 60s.

“These kinds of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Russian fifth-place winner Mariya Savinova echoed the sentiment.

“Just look at her.”

World Athletes tested Caster Semenya because of “the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.”

Although the organisation never officially released the results of the tests, media reports claimed leaks revealed Caster Semenya possessed an intersex trait.

Cleared to run at the 2012 Olympics, Caster was beaten to gold by the same Mariya Savinova who previously called her a cheat. However, Savinova later lost the medal when exposed as a drug cheat. Ironic!

At the 2016 Olympics, Caster Semenya took gold again in the 800m. Scottish runner Lynsey Sharp placed sixth. She broke down in tears and cried “Everyone can see that it’s two separate races.”

The second and third-place winners were also black Africans. By ‘two separate races’ did Sharp mean ability, gender or ethnicity?

Poland’s Joanna Jóźwik placed fifth. She was more explicit.

“I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white.”

A black South African woman who isn’t straight and acts a bit like a tomboy

Dr Madeleine Pape is an Australian sociologist and former middle-distance runner. She also ran against Caster Semenya at the 2009 World Championships. Word leaked that World Athletics would conduct a gender test on Caster Semenya just hours before the race. At the time, Madeleine Pape also doubted Caster’s right to compete against other women.

“It was by far the easier option for me to join the chorus of voices condemning her performance.”

But with the benefit of hindsight and years of academic study, Dr Pape since changed her mind. She is now a staunch supporter of the South African athlete.

“Semenya is a black South African woman who isn’t straight and acts a bit like a tomboy. She doesn’t conform and expresses her identity in her own ways.

“So, the problem here clearly doesn’t seem to be based on her performances.”

Back to testosterone

Following the initial controversy over Caster Semenya, World Athletics declared that women with testosterone above 10 nmol/L “cannot compete as female, regardless of other aspects of their biological presentation.”

Caster Semenya took hormonal medication from 2010 until 2015 to artificially lower her level. She said the medication made her ‘constantly sick’.

In 2018, World Athletics lowered the threshold to 5 nmol/L. The ruling only applies to 400, 800, and 1500 metre races prompting many to suggest the change specifically targeted Caster Semenya.

With her challenges to the rule so far unsuccessful, Caster and other African athletes who refuse to medicate will miss the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Come Damien Georges Awoumou, minister-counsellor at the Cameroon mission to the United Nations describes the regulation as sexist and racist.

We are witnessing a situation where the IAAF (World Athletics) through these regulations is using sports to discriminate against women with intersex variations and to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

“The majority of athletes affected by the regulations are from the global south and for Africa, these regulations remind us of the difficult and dark past of racial segregation.

“Segregating women on the basis of intersex variations has the same effect as apartheid, one of the international crimes against humanity.”

Dr Madeleine Pape says, “Their agenda so far has been to look for ways to exclude some women.

“They are missing the ability to listen to these women and to relate to what they are going through.”

And that is important.

Female genital mutilation

Two of the African women banned from this year’s Olympics had no idea of their hyperandrogenism until their test results came back. Women have been made social pariahs and even committed suicide as a result of gender tests.

At least four female athletes from developing countries have been subjected to female genital mutilation after testing revealed previously unknown intersex traits.

The Olympic Creed

Caster Semenya says she will not medicate her healthy body.

“They want me to take my own system down. I’m not sick. I don’t need drugs. I will never do that.”

She also says she will continue to fight for her rights and those of other women.

“I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”

Perhaps the IOC should look back to their own creed, penned by founder and misogynist Baron de Coubertin who never intended that any women should participate as competitors in the Olympics.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Fine words, yet the organisation behind them denies some women the chance to take part — for Caster Semenya and other athletes with intersex traits or hyperandrogenism, the IOC is happy for them to struggle, but not to triumph.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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