PtG Article 04.09.2017

Are ‘sex testing’ policies ready for change?

International sports organisations need to change gender classification procedures in women’s athletic events to be consistent with their own values, recent research argues.

In a recent research article, Roger Pielke Jr., Professor and Director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, investigates the policies put in place by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to determine eligibility for participation in women’s elite athletic events. Pielke argues that the IOC and the IAAF have yet to achieve the goal of gender equality as expressed in the Olympic charter, and they are struggling with their policies for determining which individuals are eligible to participate in women’s events.

According to Pielke, current policies are inadequate because they consider biological factors as the sole determent of gender.

“The problem with ‘sex testing’ in athletics is that biological sex does not divide into two neat categories but instead is highly complex and is not determined by any single characteristic or even combination of characteristics,” Pielke writes in the article.

“The IAAF/IOC has looked to science to settle disputes over sex and gender, both of which are complex and imprecise categories which do not always correlate with one another in a neat manner,” he argues in the article.

Following a presentation of current policies for ‘sex testing’ and a discussion of scientific definitions and stereotypes, Pielke proposes a procedural approach, which he argues is consistent with scientific understandings of sex and gender and with the stated aims of the IOC and IAAF including:

  • The athlete’s legal status would alone be insufficient to determine the eligibility to participate athletic events.
  • Participation in the men’s or women’s competitions would be determined initially by the athlete in the first instance of participating in organised national or international competition segregated into men’s and women’s categories.
  • Upon reaching senior competition and legal adulthood, the athlete would sign an affidavit testifying to his/her gender.
  • Consistency in participation in men’s or women’s competitions would be required from the first instance through senior (i.e. adult, open) competitions.
  • In those rare cases where an athlete wishes to change gender categories, policies and procedures would cover this contingency.

Sex testing in sport is part of an ongoing debate due to the successes of athletes such as South African Olympian, Caster Semenya who won a gold medal in the women’s 800m at the World Athletics Championship in August this year. In 2009, Semenya was investigated by the IAAF over worries about her eligibility to compete in women’s events, based on her appearance. A year later, she was cleared by the IAAF to compete as a women.

However, the IAAF is currently challenging a ruling by the court of arbitration for sport (CAS) which has prevented it from restricting permitted levels of testosterone among female competitors.