The History of Differences in Sexual Development at the Olympics

As the 2021 Olympics ends, the Olympic sex test remains in the public eye. The controversy of testing the sex of female athletes puts Caster Semenya, one of South Africa’s prominent athletic stars, at the centre of the debate.

By Thobile Mahlangu (VARSITY contributor)

Throughout the years, Caster Semenya’s career has been defined by two things: winning races and defending her identity as a female athlete. After her triumphant victory at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Athletics Association, formerly known as the International Amateur Athletic Foundation (IAAF), instituted a hyperandrogenism test which set a limit of 10 nanomoles per litre for the amount of testosterone a woman could possess to remain eligible as a competing female athlete. Semenya, who naturally produces higher levels of testosterone, would be excluded from competing.

Testosterone is a hormone produced by both men and women, but there are many ways that the human body can develop beyond “normal” hormone levels and chromosomal categories of XX and XY. People who have differences in their sexual development, or DSD, are intersex, and many people may reach sexual maturity without even being aware of their DSD.

Semenya’s story is not the first. Women have been competing and garnering titles in the Olympics since 1900 but by the 1960s, there was a growing scepticism around their success and whether they were men disguised as women. An early example is Eva Klobukowska, a Polish sprinter who won the bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics for the 100-meter sprint. Following her win, sex testing became mandatory for female athletes. Klobukowska was forced to undergo testing in a “nude parade” where female athletes were examined by a panel of doctors to confirm their sex. Klobukowska passed and was eligible to compete as a female at the 1966 Olympics. However, the next year, officials replaced physical exams with chromosomal testing, resulting in a retest. Klobukowska failed this new testing method and was deemed ineligible to compete. This method was later changed to testosterone testing in 2011. Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who was put through this test in 2014, failed and was banned from competing as a female. Chand appealed this decision, stating that World Athletics’ claims linking higher testosterone levels to performance lacked scientific research. The Court of Arbitration for Sport acknowledged Chand’s appeal and lifted the ban, stating the need for evidence linking higher testosterone to increased performance in the contested fields. This decision granted athletes such as Chand and Semenya the opportunity to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

However, in 2018, World Athletics returned with evidence and a new testosterone limit of five nanomoles per litre. This new evidence stated that female athletes with high testosterone outperformed in certain events. Despite the backlash and scrutiny from scientific communities and human rights organisations, the new testosterone limit was set solely for the women’s 400-metre, 800-metre and 1500-metre race. Unsurprisingly these were all the events Semenya usually partook in.

Following this, in 2019, she lost her appeal, barring her from competing in the Tokyo Olympics. This ban would force athletes such as Semenya, 2016 silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba, and bronze medallist Margaret Wambui, to undergo hormonal therapy in order to compete. Inevitably, such action would have adverse implications on their health. Despite World Athletics’ claims that “such discrimination is necessary” for the integrity of female athletics, sex-testing is only administered on women who are deemed “suspicious”, those who do not fit the physical stereotype of a female athlete, but this “coincidentally” excludes athletes from the Global South such as Chand and Semenya.

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