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Qualifying for the Olympic Games is an incredible achievement, usually requiring years if not decades of intense training and preparation. But once you qualify, all you have to do is travel to the Games and compete, right? Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case for female athletes. From 1968 to 1998, the International Olympic Committee imposed mandatory gender verification testing for female athletes. During those three decades, athletes had to prove they were women before they were allowed to compete.
The rationale behind gender verification (or, more accurately, sex verification) was ostensibly to prevent men “masquerading” as women from sweeping the medals due to having an unfair physical advantage. However, the testing program wasn’t just focused on looking for male athletes who were purposely trying to break the rules. It was also intended to identify women with “male-like” characteristics and stop them from participating. It quickly became apparent that this issue was anything but clear-cut, and often athletes of color were disproportionately scrutinized.
The complex history of sex and gender in sports:
- The IOC implemented chromosome testing at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble in an effort to find men “disguised” as females. Yet sex testing is not as straightforward as simply looking for Y-chromosomes. Some athletes may have rare chromosomal conditions or intersex characteristics, without necessarily having a physical advantage.
- Although the IOC’s mandatory gender testing policy ended in 1998, the controversy over whether some women have an unfair advantage due to male characteristics, including high testosterone levels, continues. Individual athletes can still be evaluated by the IOC or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), as happened with South African runner Caster Semenya following her victory in the 800m at the 2009 World Championships. She was eventually permitted to compete in the London 2012 Olympics, winning a silver medal in her event. However, subsequent IAAF rule changes have made her ineligible to compete in sprinting and middle-distance events.
- The International Olympic Committee permits trans athletes to compete following transitioning from male to female if they can demonstrate that they have had a serum testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood for at least 12 months. They are not required to undergo reassignment surgery. The same threshold applies to women with differences in sex development or hyperandrogenism. The IAAF has a lower maximum threshold of 5 nmol/L.