The sordid history of gender testing and the Olympic Games


gender testing ioc real women
Berlin Olympics: Kathe Krauss, Helen Stephens & Stella Walsh. Image: Los Angeles Times

Gender testing began because the International Olympic Committee refused to believe ‘real’ women could or should participate in traditionally male track events. The all-male IOC insisted the fairer sex’s fragility made events like the 800m impossible for the delicate female constitution.

However, 20th-century testing failed to identify male imposters. Instead, it evolved to exclude women perceived as not ‘normal’, too masculine — not ‘real’ women.

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*Gender, as a psychosocial construct, can not actually be tested. The IOC and other sporting bodies used various terms over the years, including ‘sex testing’, which more accurately described their intent. However, ‘gender testing’ remains the most common contemporary description. It is used throughout this article for ease of comprehension.

IOC gender testing

Under Olympics gender testing regimes, one woman found herself officially labelled ‘it’. Tall, flat-chested or muscular women suffered unrelenting snooping and slander. Women who passed a test one year might fail a new test the following. One gold medal winner, branded a cheat when she failed a chromosome test, later gave birth to a child. The IOC searched desperately for male imposters. Yet, the lone Olympian known to have competed in drag went undetected.

Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, initially disallowed the participation of women. However, the Olympics kicked off in the era of suffragettes. Some women refused to take no for an answer. From 1900, the IOC permitted ‘ladies’ to compete in a few genteel sports like golf and tennis.

Determined to compete in track and field, women organised their own Olympiad — usually known as the World Women’s Games — from 1922 until 1934.

Kinue Hitomi

Under threat from the Women’s Games, the IOC permitted a handful of female track events in 1928. But both officials and sportswriters still regarded running as unladylike. They falsely portrayed the 800m race as a disaster, claiming five women collapsed during the race. However, film footage shows all starters crossed the finishing line.

Japan’s Kinue Hitomi powered to second place. But she was 169-centimetres tall. Weren’t Japanese women delicate, demure little things?

She must be a man!

An investigative committee examined, interrogated, and deliberated for two hours in an attempt to determine Hitomi’s sex. Then, as Time magazine reported, she was “described in an official statement as ‘It’.”

It!

Hitomi was neither male nor intersex. She simply did not conform to preconceptions of Japanese womanhood. That suited the barrow officials wanted to push — that only men could endure an 800m footrace. The event was banished until 1960.

The media, then as now, took more interest in a female athlete’s appearance than her achievement. An interviewer for Fujin Sekai magazine suggested that Hitomi’s suntan, chest, and hips revealed her body was not ‘really’ a woman’s.

Fujin Sekai: Wouldn’t that be funny if you were really a man! It might really baffle people. Ha ha ha… The appearance of your body is not really that of a woman. Not only are you so suntanned, but… the shape of your chest and hips really isn’t like normal Japanese women.

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Hitomi: If you are too fat, then you aren’t really fit to do sports.

Fujin Sekai: But is it true that doing sports day in and day out eventually you will be somewhat masculinised?

Hitomi: No.

Three years to the day after she won Olympic silver, Hitomi died of pneumonia, aged just 24.

Kinue Hitomi real women
Kinue Hitomi (left) at the 1928 Olympics.

Avery Brundage

The key player in the sordid tale of Olympic gender testing was not female, intersex, or transgender. Avery Brundage was a man, and he wouldn’t like you to forget that!

He was also anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist. Life magazine summed up the popular sentiment in 1948.

“Brundage became celebrated as a tyrant, snob, dictator, and stuffed shirt, as well as just about the meanest man in the whole world of sports.”

Ouch!

Avery Brundage competed at the 1912 Olympics but failed to win a medal. He held a lifelong grudge against the Native American teammate who did. Nevertheless, the sore loser became president of the American Olympic Association in 1928, the year of the infamous 800m women’s race. He was no fan of women’s athletics.

“The ancient Greeks kept women out of their athletic games. They wouldn’t even let them on the sidelines. I’m not so sure but they were right.”

While Brundage became involved in numerous controversies, his biggest stoushes always concerned female athletes. That, said Life, was no coincidence.

“He has always been suspicious of athletic women… [He suspects] that some of them — perhaps even a considerable number — are really men.”

Brundage would eventually dominate the IOC. In 1936, he began a long campaign to expose the men snatching Olympic medals by posing as women. But finding male imposters proved difficult. In fact, impossible. They didn’t exist.

So Brundage moved the goalposts from sex to gender. If he couldn’t find men, he would settle for athletes with intersex traits.

He spun the stories of two Women’s Games medalists who transitioned after ending their careers in women’s athletics and undergoing surgery.

Avery Brundage gender testing
Avery Brundage in Life Magazine, 1948.

Mark Weston

Mark Weston shot to fame as a female field athlete in the 1920s, winning British championships for javelin, discus and shot put.

He was always a tomboy.

“In spite of the fact I was reared as and knew myself as a girl, my life was not girlish. Until I was 14, I didn’t care for girlish games. I liked sports.”

Over the years, Mark’s voice deepened, and facial hair sprouted. Studying anatomy for a diploma in remedial massage, he became curious about the changes to his own body.

“I imagined I was a girl until 1928. Then, competing in the world championships, I began to realise that I was not normal and had no right to compete as a woman. But I only had the courage to see a doctor this year when a London specialist said I ought to undergo two operations.”

Within months of his surgery, Mark married Alberta Bray, a fellow Plymouth Women’s Athletics Club member. Seeking to avoid publicity, they moved to a cottage in the village where Mark grew up.

“My old neighbours are very kind.”

Mark and Alberta enjoyed a long marriage. He died in 1978 and Alberta about twenty years later.

Press coverage of Mark’s transition was notably non-judgmental. Journalists consistently highlighted that he had no reason to believe he was a man during his athletic career. The press and fellow athletes accepted that he was born with atypical genitalia and assigned female at birth.

Branding intersex athletes as frauds would not become a thing for a little while yet.

Mark Weston real women
Mark and Alberta Weston, 1936. Inset: Mark during his athletic career.

Zdenek Koubek

In the early 1930s, sportswriters heralded Czechoslovakia’s Zdenek Koubek as ‘the fastest woman alive’.

According to Physical Culture magazine, “No one, except himself, doubted his femininity. However, in 1935, while he was wearing his running togs, suspicion as to his true sex arose.”

After medical consultations revealed intersex traits, Zdenek decided to undergo surgery, something his American coach tried to talk him out of.

“I argued with her but lost the decision. She is now a male athlete.”

Like Mark Weston, Zdenek made no secret of his transition. Indeed, he travelled to the US to perform on the cabaret circuit. Once again, the media coverage was positive. It was also surprisingly progressive.

Academics and serious publications alike described a spectrum rather than a binary.

Time said, “To sober medical men, it does not seem strange that Nature sometimes blurs sexual development in men & women. Biologists say there is no such thing as absolute sex.”

Physical Culture agreed.

“Sex is relative. No man is 100% male, no woman 100% female… Each sex carries within itself the potentialities of the other.”

But Avery Brundage would not be swayed.

For Brundage, men were men and so probably, were successful female athletes.

Zdenek Koubek gender testing
Zdenek Koubek

Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh

Helen Stephens grew up on a Missouri farm. Her mother said she learned to run chasing rabbits. When Helen began to win national races in her teens, people compared her to the undisputed champion of American women’s athletics, Polish-born Stella Walsh.

“The two fastest girl runners in the world are bitter rivals.

“Miss Stephens and Miss Walsh have much in common. Specialists in the dashes, both can put the shot, jump and what have you. Both showed their ability to run in early life… and both more or less tomboys.”

The Pittsburgh Press called Helen “flat-chested, long-legged, masculine.”

Despite living in the US since the age of three months, Stella Walsh was not a citizen. She, therefore, represented Poland in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. After winning gold in the 100m in 1932, Stella went into 1936 the favourite. But Helen Stephens beat her by .02 second.

Consequently, as Time reported, “A Warsaw newspaper, with what is now a routine lack of chivalry toward female Olympic competitors, suggested that Stephens was a man. The possibility that Stephens’ ignorance of her own abilities might include her sex was promptly destroyed by officials. They announced that they had foreseen the dispute, investigated Stephens before the race, and found her a thoroughgoing female.”

By ‘routine lack of chivalry’, Time meant the already tiresome insinuation that successful female athletes were not ‘real’ women.

Helen’s medical examination revealed the three proofs required to substantiate womanhood — a vagina, clitoris and…

…pubic hair!

helen stephens stella walsh real women
Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh, Wisconsin State Journal

Brundage again

Examination complete, everyone was happy.

Everyone except American Olympics boss and newly installed IOC member Avery Brundage.

Brundage saw the Stephens fracas as symptomatic of a terrible quandary.

“The major problem of the women’s Olympics is determining whether or not the competitors are women.”

How? There was one complaint, and it was bullshit. Helen was a woman. WTF was Brundage on about?

The man was obsessed. This bloke could not look at a female athlete without hallucinating a dick.

But Brundage needed evidence that all these penises actually existed. Helen was useless, having passed her test. Likewise, Kinue Hitomi, proven female years ago and a national hero in Japan following her death.

So, ‘worry-ridden Avery Brundage’, as Time labelled him, ‘demanded [an] examination for sex ambiguities in all women competitors‘, quoting the examples of Mark Weston and Zdenek Koubek.

Both Mark and Zdenek were assigned females at birth and grew up as girls. Both competed legally as women. Neither made a secret of their transition. But in them, Brundage found his cheats — his not ‘real’ women.

In the main, newspapers left Mark Weston alone. One did ask if he’d return his medals, and he said yes. But Mark was English. Zdenek was Czechoslovakian, easily ‘othered’, and therefore, fair game.

Papers reinvented history. One claimed falsely that the Czech athlete was always male, transitioned to win medals and then – mission accomplished – de-transitioned.

And so began the Olympic tradition of branding intersex athletes as cheats. All because Avery Brundage could not find a man to substantiate his obsessive belief that ‘real’ women were not built for athletic sporting competition.

Best lives

But Mark and Zdenek didn’t really care. They were living their best lives as their authentic selves. Zdenek also married, dying in 1986.

Testament to the character of many of the athletes in this long, sorry saga, they never allowed slurs, prejudice, and discrimination to break them. From Kinue Hitomi on, many of these sporting champions also became champions in life. Although taken too soon, Hitomi packed a lot into her short life, inspiring generations of Japanese girls to take up sport and to defy convention.

And Helen Stephens? She came out as a lesbian and lived to a ripe old age with her longtime partner, Mabel O. Robbe.

Despite the media beat-up about the rivalry between the pair, Helen and Stella remained lifelong friends. They caught up occasionally, corresponded and exchanged Christmas cards.

Stella Walsh returned to where she grew up — Cleveland, Ohio. She devoted herself to charitable efforts in the local Polish community and helping young athletes. She became a celebrated community hero. But Stella’s involvement in the gender testing soap opera was not yet over. We’ll return to Stella Walsh when her story again becomes entangled in this twisted narrative.

But, to return to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, ironically, the only man proven to have competed as a woman at an Olympic Games did so there. And Brundage never noticed.

Dora Ratjen

Nazi sympathiser Avery Brundage managed to quash a proposed American boycott of the Berlin Games. He assured Americans that the Germans would not discriminate against Jewish athletes.

Bullshit, of course.

Champion German high jumper Gretel Bergmann moved to England in 1934. The Nazis had stopped her from competing because she was Jewish. But later, they needed to prove that Germany didn’t discriminate against Jewish athletes. Hitler’s regime threatened reprisals against Gretel’s family unless she returned to train for the 1936 Olympics. Then, when the threat of boycotts passed, they booted her out again.

Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen competed for Germany in the women’s high jump. Elfriede won bronze, and Dora placed fourth.

Dora, however, went on to break the world women’s high jump record in 1938. But in 1957, that record was disallowed.

Dora was a man.

No one suspected anything in 1936, including teammate Gretel Bergmann.

“I never had any suspicions, not even once. In the communal shower, we wondered why she never showed herself naked. It was grotesque that someone could still be that shy at the age of 17.”

Elfriede agreed, “No one knew or noticed anything about her different sexuality.”

But in 1966, Time reported that Dora “tearfully confessed he had been forced by the Nazis to pose as a woman.”

A great story later made into a movie. But not true. The Nazis certainly robbed Gretel Bergmann of her rightful place in the competition. But they did not intentionally replace her with a man.

Dora Ratjen gender testing
Dora Ratjen

Heinrich Ratjen

Years after her birth, Dora’s father said, “The midwife called over to me, ‘It’s a boy!’ But five minutes later, she said, ‘It is a girl’.”

Although unsure, Dora’s parents took the midwife’s word. In 1918, most people avoided discussion of sexual matters.

Dora explained her own confusion.

“My parents brought me up as a girl… From the age of 10 or 11, I started to realise I wasn’t female… However, I never asked my parents why I had to wear women’s clothes.”

Dora’s career as a female athlete ended on her way home from breaking the world record in 1938. A rail inspector, suspicious of her hairy arms, reported her to the police.

The end of the masquerade pleased the young athlete. One police officer noted, “He has been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Dora changed his name to Heinrich. He lived and worked as a man for the rest of his life.

Der Spiegel unearthed the original files of his arrest in 2009.

The records show that bad as they were, the Nazis did not pass off Heinrich as a girl at the 1936 Olympics. They didn’t know.

Nor was the fraud malicious. A doctor documented scar tissue running along the underside of Heinrich’s penis. That perhaps indicates a genital anomaly at the time of his birth.

The true story of Dora Ratjen is that of a mistaken midwife, parents unsure what to do, and a boy who felt unable to broach a taboo subject with his parents.

It is also the story of officials on a relentless quest to expose male imposters. Yet, when one jumped up almost two metres in the air right before their eyes, their penile radar failed them.

The Cold War

Because of the Second World War, no Olympics took place in 1940 or 44. The Games resumed in 1948, with female athletes required to present a certificate from home attesting to their gender.

But by the 1960s, those certificates would raise doubts.

The Soviet Union did not compete in the Olympics until 1952. The Games then became yet another Cold War battlefield. East and West fought to top the medal count in order to promote their political ideologies. The Soviets and other communist nations invested a fortune into winning medals. Their win-at-all-costs mentality included a total disregard for the welfare of athletes.

Sports doctors and coaches injected athletes with anything they thought might power them to a win.

Performance-enhancing drugs enjoyed a long history at the Olympic Games. Strychnine was popular early in the 20th-century and amphetamines in the 1930s.

But in the 1950s, Soviet and then American athletes began using first synthetic testosterone and later, anabolic steroids. By 1961, the IOC noted that some female athletes took male hormones.

The Western media reported on the masculine physiques of various Eastern Bloc female athletes. One coach, asked about the deep voices of his female athletes, replied, “We’re not here to sing.”

Media speculation grew. Were the communists fielding men? Was it drugs?

Sporting bodies reacted to the speculation by instituting a sex test — for female athletes. Time noted the announcement of the testing coincided with the sudden retirement of a number of the Eastern Bloc’s top female athletes.

Tamara and Irina Press

“Some of the biggest stars failed to show up for one reason or another. Russia’s Press sisters, Tamara and Irina, who between them own four world records (known to their competitors as ‘the Press brothers’), stayed home to care for their sick mother.”

The media outdid themselves in their descriptions of the retiring athletes. The (Ukrainian) Press sisters were called the ‘Russian muscle molls’ among other insults. Papers speculated that the sisters and others were either men, ‘hermaphrodites’ or drug cheats.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, reams of information emerged about the Eastern Bloc’s various doping programs. Nothing indicated any of the athletes were men.

However, the constant combined mentions of drug cheats and athletes with intersex traits conflated the pair in the public mind. Women with intersex traits came to be seen as ‘cheats’ — precisely what IOC head Avery Brundage branded them in 1936.

Tamara Press real women
Tamara Press in the Miami Herald

Ewa Klobukowska

In 1966, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, now World Athletics) conducted a sex test at a Budapest sports meet. Three gynecologists ‘visually examined’ the genitals of 243 female athletes during a ‘nude parade’. Everyone passed. At a later event, doctors ‘probed’ the genitalia of female athletes. Gold medal-winning pentathlete Mary Peters described it as “the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known in my life.”

Still, no one failed.

Polish runner Ewa Kłobukowska participated in the infamous 1966 nude parade. She previously won gold and bronze at the 1964 Games.

In 1967, Ewa and other female athletes faced yet another examination. This time a ‘close-up visual inspection‘ of her genitalia failed to convince.

The IAAF now had a new weapon in their arsenal — chromosome testing. A scraping of Ewa’s inner cheek revealed she possessed “one chromosome too many to be declared a woman for the purposes of athletic competition.”

real women gender testing
Miami Herald

Despite her rare genetic condition conferring no athletic advantage, Ewa was banned from competition, stripped of her medals and world records.

“There’s nothing like a dame,” sang Time, except, “There are people who are something like a dame but are really men, or even a combination of male and female.”

You’d think they’d have changed their tune the following year when Ewa gave birth to a son. But no — Time just never mentioned her again.

Brundage’s hand-picked IOC director, Monique Berlioux, defended the test.

“We are grateful for this initiative which will make it possible to put an end to the cheating, which takes place, whether intentionally or not.”

So there it was again, straight from the horse’s mouth. The IOC regarded athletes with intersex traits as cheats.

The IOC returned Ewa Kłobukowska’s medals to her 31 years later.

Ewa Kłobukowska gender testing
Ewa Kłobukowska, Minneapolis Star

Lord Exeter

Lord Exeter won gold in the 400m hurdles at the same 1928 Games where the sorry history of sex and gender testing began with the examination of Kinue Hitomi.

By 1967, he served as an IOC member and president of the IAAF. He wrote to Avery Brundage in December 1967, boasting about the success of the new scientific tests.

The new chromosome test, he said, “managed to keep out six who were hermaphrodites [and] to frighten the doubtful ones away.”

It seems he exaggerated. The only person known to be excluded from competition because of the chromosome test that year was a soon-to-be mother.

United States Olympic Committee head physician Daniel F. Hanley also praised the new gender testing. 

“We will establish a new definition of femaleness.”

Sin Kim-dan

North Korean athlete Sin Kin-dan was separated from her father as a 12-year-old during the Korean War. A world record holder in the 400m, she competed at the 1963 GANEFO Games held by emerging nations to counter the Olympics. Despite her selection to run in the 1964 Olympics, the IAAF banned athletes who competed at the GANEFO Games. Sin was turned back at Tokyo International Airport after a brief meeting with her father.

Two years later, Time suggested that after the pair stumbled into each other, the father recognised the 26-year-old woman as the boy he last saw fourteen years before.

“Sin Kim Dan, a delicate little North Korean lass, broke the women’s records at both 400 meters and 800 meters two years ago. Sometime later, an overjoyed elderly gentleman in South Korea recognised Sin as the son he had lost in the war.”

No evidence ever emerged to support the unlikely and unevidenced snippet.

A few years later, the South Korean women’s volleyball team lost to the bronze medal-winning North Koreans at the 1972 Munich Games. The South Koreans protested that Kim Zung-Bok, the top North Korean player was a man. They alleged that another volleyballer used Kim’s passport and substituted for her during gender testing. The IOC disallowed the protest.

The media got away with unsubstantiated rumours about male imposters because no one could check. Pre-digitisation, fact-checkers could not simply type a name into Google.

Meanwhile, the IOC formed their own Medical Commission to undertake both drug and gender testing.

The commission took its time on doping. The only competitor disqualified for substance abuse at the 1968 Games was a Swede who drank two beers to steady his nerves. The first meaningful drug tests took place at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

gender testing
Not atypical commentary: The Sacramento Bee

Stella Walsh

At the end of 1980, Stella Walsh made headlines again, nearly half a century after her Olympic gold.

Born in Poland as Stanisława Walasiewicz, Stella grew up in the US. A champion female athlete from a young age, she qualified for the 1928 Olympics. However, unable to obtain American citizenship before turning 21, she could not compete.

When her birthplace offered both a place on the national team for the 1932 Olympics and a desperately needed job, Stella jumped at the opportunity. She won gold for Poland in the 100-metre women’s dash. As previously mentioned, Helen Stephens then beat Stella in Berlin, and a Polish paper claimed Helen was a man.

Although an examination proved otherwise, Avery Brundage jumped on the controversy to suggest men posing as female athletes was a substantial issue.

Following the Berlin Games, Stella returned to her childhood hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where she became a popular and celebrated local citizen.

After a lifetime of community service, 69-year-old Stella Walsh was murdered in December 1980. She fought back during an attempted armed robbery and was shot. The city of Cleveland went into mourning for one of its most-loved citizens. Then word leaked that the autopsy revealed Stella possessed intersex traits.

Despite media pressure, the coroner refused to call Stella a man.

“Socially, culturally and legally, Stella Walsh was accepted as a female for 69 years. She lived and died a female.”

He explained her sex at birth would have been ambiguous and impossible to determine by a visual inspection. With Brundage dead, the IOC did not rescind Stella’s gold medals or her records.

Stella the Fella

Nevertheless, hindsight is a beautiful thing.

People suddenly remembered they’d been suspicious of Stella’s gender all along. Later, a British tabloid claimed 1930s newspapers referred to her as ‘Stella the Fella’.

Bullshit again!

Research for this story included reading hundreds of newspaper articles about Stella. The most anyone ever called her during life was a tomboy. She was never referred to as ‘Stella the Fella’ until after her death.

But the revelation of her intersex traits suited the by now predominant narrative set by the IOC. Women who did not fit the IOC definition of a woman were not ‘real’ women — even Ewa Kłobukowska, who later gave birth to a child.

Unreliable, irresponsible and unethical

The IOC ignored biologists, endocrinologists and geneticists who protested that the test was unreliable, irresponsible and unethical. The British Medical Bulletin later declared, the IOC gender testing “led to unfair disqualifications of women athletes and untold psychological harm.”

The Bulletin described chromosome testing as discredited, saying it “identifies only the sex chromosome component of gender and is therefore misleading.”

Remarkably, some medical experts believed ‘men with a female chromatin pattern’ would pass the same test that saw Ewa Kłobukowska banned.

But the IOC was on a roll. They added a clause to the athlete’s entry form. Olympic competitors now needed to agree to examinations “thought necessary in the interests of both his health and future.”

His health and future!

Princess Anne

Every female Olympic competitor was now required to undergo chromosome testing. Well, everyone except Princess Anne, a member of the 1976 British equestrian team. The testing was thought ‘inappropriate’ for the daughter of Queen Elizabeth.

Inappropriate for one woman but not others? Hardly a fair playing field, then. But of course, Baron de Coubertin packed the IOC with the titled and the monied from the beginning. That had not changed by 1976. Princes, Grand Dukes, Lords and Counts littered the committee. Obsequious committee members would never demand a British royal be held to the same standard as the mere mortals she chose to compete against.

Princess Anne later joined some of the other royals on the IOC. But not in 1976. In 1976, not one woman had ever yet served on the IOC.

The IOC decided what sports were suitable for female competitors. It ruled on what they should wear during competition. The committee decreed what constituted fair female competition. Additionally, the IOC imposed gender testing to ensure only ‘real’ women’ participated in the Games. In doing so, it created definitions of gender unknown to the law or medical science. Over time, the IOC shaped public perception of gender and womanhood.

And it did all that for over 80 years without a single female representative.

María José Martínez-Patiño

After undergoing the chromosome test, female athletes received a ‘certificate of femininity’ for future use.

María José Martínez-Patiño passed the gender testing in 1983. However, she forgot to take her certificate to a sports meet in 1985. Retaking the test, she failed.

A team doctor advised Maria to fake an injury and sit out the race. She refused. After she won first place, officials leaked her test results.

Maria later wrote she felt ashamed and embarrassed.

“I lost friends, my fiancé, hope, and energy. But I knew that I was a woman and that my genetic difference gave me no unfair physical advantage. I could hardly pretend to be a man — I have breasts and a vagina. I never cheated.”

IOC officials advised women who failed the tests to feign injury and retire quietly to avoid unpleasant publicity. No one knows how many women were affected. Olympic pentathlete Jane Frederick said the testing procedure stopped many women from competing early in the process.

“They give you the test… in your own country so that if you don’t turn up with the right amount of Xs, they can take you aside and ask if you’d like to have an ‘injury’.”

Two months after the race, Maria received a letter classifying her as male. Later tests revealed she had Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, meaning her body could not respond to testosterone. She could neither develop the strength associated with testosterone nor benefit from anabolic steroids. The IOC declared her ineligible to compete at the Olympics for a condition that gave her absolutely no advantage.

María José Martínez-Patiño decided not to quietly retire. She fought a long campaign for reinstatement. Human rights activists and geneticists joined her cause, and she won. However, she never qualified for the Olympics again.

María José Martínez-Patiño Certificate of Femininity
María José Martínez-Patiño’s Certificate of Femininity

Testosterone

With numerous false positives, and no actual male imposters detected, the IAAF dropped gender testing. However, the IOC persisted. From 1928 on, the organisation had insisted men posing as women was a significant problem. Despite not catching the only one who did, they were not going to give up now.

The Medical Commission tried a new test. It proved particularly ineffective. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, all eight women who failed the test ended up competing after further examinations.

The IOC finally gave up blanket gender testing in 1999. However, it reserved the right to undertake ‘appropriate’ examinations when any female athlete’s gender was questioned.

That subsequently occurred in cases like that of Caster Semenya. In the 21st century, the IOC decided on yet another determinant of womanhood — testosterone levels. Because of their testosterone levels, athletes with intersex traits or hyperandrogenism found themselves excluded from competition.

Testosterone levels also became a crucial factor in determining the eligibility of trans athletes for female competition. In that case, it seems the IOC reached a workable compromise. It took from 2004 until 2020 for the first trans athletes to fulfil the requirements for competing. There remains, of course, contention around Laurel Hubbard’s participation in Olympic women’s weightlifting. But that is nothing to what will come when the first trans athlete eventually wins a medal. We confidently predict all hell will break loose.

Gender testing for ‘real’ women

The IOC began gender testing because of preconceptions of what ‘real’ women’s bodies should look like and how their bodies should perform.

They insisted gender testing ensured ‘fairness’ in sport. But elite athleticism is not about ‘fairness’. Exceptional genetic traits assist many athletes in winning Olympic medals. But the IOC focuses solely on gender — and then only women’s gender.

The committee introduced tests to stop men masquerading as women. No men were ever detected. Instead, the tests shamed and sometimes banished women who did not conform to conventional notions of femininity.

This is the story of an event instituted during Queen Victoria’s reign. An event that never entirely relinquished Victorian prejudice against ‘real’ women running and jumping and grunting and sweating.

(Admittedly, pole vaulting in a crinoline does present challenges.)

Residual institutional prejudice against athletic women lingers in the still predominantly male IOC — an organisation that initially banned female participation. The mainly male committee still determines which sports female athletes should compete in, what they should wear, whether they can breastfeed and what defines a woman.

Olympic scholar and former Olympian Bruce Kidd explained it best.

“It’s still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can’t be real women.”

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2 Comments

  1. Dave Weston
    2 August 2021
    Reply

    The sordid history of gender testing and the Olympic Games
    Thank you Destiny, a wonderfully expansive and well researched feature article, I will need to save this for future reference.
    Your work is highly regarded and very much appreciated by the The GLBTIQ community.

  2. 2 August 2021
    Reply

    No Dave – thank you. This all came from an article you sent me about your namesake Mark Weston. Looking into Mark’s life led to a treasure trove of interesting history and remarkable people. xx

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