Woman Enough?

Inside the controversial world of Olympic gender testing

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Martin Meissner / AP

Semenya, who will compete in London, had to undergo genital exams in 2009 to verify her gender--an experience she described as "unwarranted and invasive"

Can you prove your gender? That’s the question female Olympians could face at the London Games thanks to a proposed policy from the International Olympic Committee. The IOC hopes to test some women to prevent those with abnormally high testosterone levels from competing with an unfair advantage (or the less likely scenario of male athletes posing as women). But the suggested policy–which would affect only female athletes whose gender is questioned, as that of runner Caster Semenya (right) was in 2009–may be discriminatory and biologically unfounded.

“This policy treats testosterone in just women, not men, as if it’s doping,” says Rebecca Jordan-Young, a bioethicist at Barnard College. But studies show that higher levels alone do not produce better results for men or women–and that normal amounts are hard to define. And testing whether an athlete is woman enough can be devastating, says Spanish hurdler Mara Jos Martnez-Patio, who lost her scholarship and her fianc in 1986 after tests revealed she had a chromosomal abnormality (even though it didn’t affect her performance). All of which suggests that, for now, the best form of gender testing might be no testing at all.


In the 1960s, the IOC made female athletes walk nude in front of physicians to verify the presence of female genitalia and other sex characteristics.

But … intersex conditions, in which people are born with both male and female genitalia, rendered those tests unworkable.

Beginning in 1967, the IOC tested for chromosomes to establish sex–XY for male and XX for female. But … that ignored some natural cases, such as males with an extra X chromosome and females who are missing one.

The IOC now aims to distinguish gender with testosterone levels, which are generally higher in males than females.

But … levels vary both among people and within individuals, depending on the time of day and what they’re doing.

Sources: American Journal of Bioethics; International Association of Athletics Federations; International Olympic Committee