Here's Why Olympic Sex Verification Is a Bad Idea

Illustration for article titled Heres Why Olympic Sex Verification Is a Bad Idea

The International Olympic Committee is considering new rules that would ban women with hyperandrogenism (naturally high testosterone levels) from competing in the games. Supporters admit it's not a perfect policy, but say something has to be done to prevent "real" women from competing against women who "play like men." Those quotations are ours but they're not sarcastic: the rules will likely be implemented because officials are worried that it's unfair for women to compete against those with unfair physical advantages. Since most people agree that sex-segregated sports are necessary for that reason, aren't some sort of guidelines in order?


Definitely not testosterone-based ones, say two experts in the field: Rebecca Jordan-Young, an associate professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies and the author of "Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences," and Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford and the author of "Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience. Both women believe measuring testosterone levels is more hurtful than helpful for female athletes for two main reasons: testosterone levels don't actually mean much, and sex verification testing in general takes away from more pressing athletic gender bias issues.


"As counterintuitive as it might seem, there is no evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones," the women argue in the New York Times:

Testosterone is one of the most slippery markers that sports authorities have come up with yet. Yes, average testosterone levels are markedly different for men and women. But levels vary widely depending on time of day, time of life, social status and - crucially - one's history of athletic training. Moreover, cellular responses range so widely that testosterone level alone is meaningless.

Testosterone is not the master molecule of athleticism. One glaring clue is that women whose tissues do not respond to testosterone at all are actually overrepresented among elite athletes.


Yes, doping with testosterone will most likely improve your performance by increasing muscle size, strength and endurance. But you cannot predict how well athletes will do in a competition by knowing their relative testosterone levels. There is just too much variation in how bodies make and respond to testosterone - and testosterone is but one element of an athlete's physiology.

If the IOC is bent on implementing testosterone testing, Jordan-Young and Karkazis believe female athletes should be allowed to compete throughout any investigation, policies should be more transparent, and Olympic officials should go to greater lengths to denounce gender-bashing; it's all too common for a pissed-off loser to say her competitor "played like a man." But wouldn't it be better to ask why we're so obsessed with sex verification in the first place? It's not like we're all characters in She's The Man, so why are we so concerned about "manly" imposters? As the women argue:

Sex tests are based on the notion that fair competition requires "protecting" female athletes. Protection has been the cloak that covers all manner of sex discrimination, and it is seldom, if ever, the best way to advance equality.

What are these tests protecting women from? Men infiltrating women's competitions? A century of monitoring competitions for sex fraud says no. Will superwomen crowd out other athletes? No again. Women who have been ensnared by sex-testing dragnets have often been impressive, but not out of line with other elite female athletes.

What about letting go of the idea that the ultimate goal of a fair policy is to protect the "purity" of women's competitions? If the goal is instead to group athletes so that everyone has a chance to play, to excel and - yes - to win, then sex-segregated competition is just one of many possible options, and in many cases it might not be the best one.


Those are excellent points. There are so many less exciting but more pressing issues, like how men have 40 more events in the Olympics with longer distances and durations for no real reason. And, hey: men have varying levels of testosterone too, but it's not like they'll be subject to scrutiny under the new rules. "Scientifically, there is no clear or objective way to draw a bright line between male and female," Jordan-Young and Karkazis say."There is no reason to disqualify women whose bodies produce any of the complex ingredients that add up to athleticism, be they superb vision, big lungs, flexibility, long legs or testosterone. The obsessive focus on sex has done enough harm."

You Say You're a Woman? That Should Be Enough [New York Times]

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I am extremely torn on this. Maybe science will prove that testosterone levels are not the test, but if sports are to be gender segregated due to the biological differences that cause differences in performance between men and women, there needs to be a clear understanding of who competes as a man and who competes as a woman. Gender is a broad spectrum and when lines are drawn there are always individuals who are disadvantaged (and consequently, those who benefit). It's in the nature of line drawing. These are hard questions but of extreme importance to sport. Without clear rules that set a playing field to enable competition that all involved understand to be fair, you don't have sport.

So, maybe the way the IOC intends to make determinations is not the right answer. I don't know enough about it to know what information they based their decision on and what the full scope and validity of competing information is. However, I do think they are engaging in a necessary task given the premise that men's and women's events will continue to exist in the Olympics and at all levels below. The other solution is to just allow people to compete against other people. In most sports, results will show that women's participation in high level sport would be returned to near zero.