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The Olympics: Break the Gender Binary?

Maya's picture

The Olympics: Breaking the Gender Binary?

Imagine training your entire life for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: competing for your country in international competitions. You sweat, you grind through all of the workouts, you give up your life for this one amazing experience, you win gold, you stand before thousands of cheering fans, and see your dreams come true. A week later you are told that the gold medal you just won may be taken away because you are not a woman. This is exactly what happened to Caster Semenya after winning the 800-meter world championships in 2009. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) wanted to disqualify Semenya because they found that she does not have a uterus or ovaries and instead she has internal testes. Because of the testes, she produces three times the amount of testosterone as the average female, giving her an advantage because testosterone has “performance-enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power, and speed” ("IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism"). Caster Semenya grew up as a girl, never suspecting that she was any different than the any other girl. After going through a humiliating process where reporters questioned her potential motives for attempting to disguise her differences and people all over the world discussed her personal information, she was cleared and she qualified for the 2012 Olympics.

Because of her differences, the Olympic Committee is now debating how to make a level playing field for all athletes because the only way for half of the population to have a chance at winning is to draw a line between the two sexes. But where should that line be drawn? Since the new millennium people are becoming more aware, if not accepting of the idea, that there are more than two genders and that many people fall between the two. As the world changes to encompass a wide variety of people, sports still lags behind and the question of how to make achieve fairness across genders continues to baffle many people.

Throughout this semester, as a class, we discussed the gender binary and all of the connotations with keeping it intact versus breaking it. I have come to the conclusion, as have the majority of my classmates I think, that the gender binary needs to be broken, or at least expanded to create more than a binary. In many areas, society would benefit greatly from breaking this binary. People would be free to express their gender however they want and would not be questioned or harassed for their gender identity. Recently, Philadelphia’s mayor Michael Nutter signed a piece of legislation requiring all public buildings to have a gender-neutral bathroom along with the men’s and women’s bathrooms ("Gender-Neutral Restrooms Become the Law"). This allows for people to feel more comfortable expressing non-binary genders, and it moves the city one step closer to equality for all its people. However, even as more and more governments sign laws giving more freedom and protections to people who do not fit into either gender, the Olympic Committee is still stubbornly, and potentially with good reason, refusing to acknowledge that there are athletes who do not fit into a binary definition of gender. Such athletes must fit into one of the two gender categories or they are banned.

In 1900, 19 women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. Both their numbers and their athletic ability continued to grow through the years. Physical and social limitations meant that elite female athletes did not rival top male athletes, so the Olympic Committee created separate athletic categories designated for female athletes. However women improved and in fact, Joan Benoit’s marathon time in the 1984 Olympics would have beaten all the men’s times in the 1956 Olympics. As women’s sports grew in popularity and success, more attention was devoted to “leveling the playing field” so that men’s physical prowess based on much higher testosterone levels would not dominate women in the competitions. Famously, during the Cold War era, rumors spread about men who attempted to pass as women and compete in the women’s events (Genel). A few incidents occurred to fuel these rumors including three track and field runners who had sex reassignments to become biologically male after competing in the Olympics and suspicions that a Polish sprinter had chromosomal mosaicism, a genetic difference where some of her cells have a different number of chromosomes. She was stripped of her medals. Fueled by these events, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) began mandatory sex tests for female athletes in the 1930s (Heggie). In the beginning a simple doctor’s note would suffice for clearing female athletes to compete. As women’s successes continued to grow dramatically and sports organizations questioned the physique of some women, “systematic, at-event, standardized, ‘scientific’ sex tests were introduced in the 1960s” (Heggie). An American shot-putter Maren Sidler described the sex tests for the Pan-American Games in 1967, “They lined us up outside a room where there were three doctors sitting in a row behind desks. You had to go in and pull up your shirt and push down your pants. Then they just looked while you waited for them to confer and decide if you were OK” (Heggie). She described how one woman came out and said she could not compete because she “didn’t have enough up top” (Heggie). For the 1968 Winter Games the Barr Body Test became the main test. For this test, cells are removed from the inside of the athletes’ cheek and screened for whether they are XY or XX. This process continued, although many voiced their resistance against this tactic throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Even though the IAAF (International Athletic Association Federation) dropped “chromosomal and genetic testing in favor of a manual/visual ‘health check’ by the team doctor, and then abandoned all forms of sex testing in 1992”, the IOC continued to require sex testing and in the 1992 Olympics they introduced a DNA test that detected a specific spot on the Y chromosome that in turn controls the production of testosterone (Heggie). Eight out of 3387 female athletes failed this test and seven had androgen insensitivity while one had undergone gonadectomy, which is surgical removal of the ovary or testes. However, instead of forcing these athletes to go through more tests and potentially not allowing them to compete like the Olympic Committee had done in the past, all were given the appropriate documents and allowed to compete. Although many medical experts criticized the Olympic Committee saying that the DNA tests were not conclusive, it was not until 2004 that the last Olympic Governing Body (the International Volleyball Federation) stopped the mandatory pre-competition gender tests. However, the Olympic Committee reserved the right to perform gender testing if suspicions were raised against an athlete who had performed exceptionally well or if a medical expert saw signs of unusual genitalia or masculine-looking features.

In June 2012,  a month before the London games, the IOC surprised the sports world and decided to define gender not on DNA or genitals, but on hormone levels (Genel). This seemed to be a better definition until women who had higher testosterone levels than the average woman were publicly humiliated. One Indian woman, Santhi Soundarajan only learned that she would be stripped of her medals while watching the TV news (Shapiro). The IOC needs to find a better way to communicate their decisions more appropriately to the athletes.

The real question is why people think they need to subject women to shame and controversy just because they do not fit into the box society defined as “woman”. Historically, equality of the sexes when it comes to sports has been highly controversial. Sports were seen as too hard for women and women could be harmed if they worked too hard. Women were seen as abnormal if they were interested in sports, especially if they were successful. Until Title IX became law, which improved the funding directed at women’s sports and changed the image of women’s sports in the US, women’s sports were looked down on (and some still are) and did not get as much funding or attention as men’s sports (some still do not). However, when it comes to dividing the sexes with sports, people do not want women to be taken advantage of or overshadowed by men. There is a line that needs to be drawn between athletes because the average woman is slower and weaker than the average man and the fastest woman is slower than the fastest man. How far will the Olympic Committee go to make sure that everybody fits into one of the two defined boxes? Does the Olympic Committee need to define different categories so that people who do not fall within either definition of “male” and “female” can have a different category? How can athletic governing bodies broaden their definition of “women” and “men” so that they include athletes who fall in between the binary categories and still keep competition?

As Kate Bornstein so beautifully puts it in her “My New Gender Workbook,” “Gender is really easy to sum up in one word: categorization. Anything that categorizes people is gender, whether it’s appearance or mannerisms, biology or psychology, hormones, roles, genitalia, whatever: if we’re trying to categorize or separate people out, it’s gender” (48). People categorize others because it makes them feel safer but sometimes people do not fit into the boxes provided. Sports have long used the categories male and female to divide athletes, however it is becoming more and more apparent that it might not be enough to simply put everybody into the either/or category. “For so long, we’ve bought into a biological imperative that has labeled genitalia as ‘male’ or ‘female’; and what’s more, we’ve dignified that imperative by giving it its own word: sex! Anyway, who says penises are male and vaginas, vulvas, and clitorises are female?” (Bornstein, 48). The only reason to use these definitions is if they are foolproof ways to divide the two genders, which the previously attempted tests: genitalia, hormones and DNA prove that it is not that simple. There will always be people who run faster or are slightly stronger, so why question women who naturally have slightly more testosterone in their bodies or were born without a uterus?

I do not think that a solution can be easily found, however as the Olympic Committee continues to include all top athletes and figures out ways for intersex athletes to compete, they need to be aware of the evolution of public and scientific understanding. The population is becoming increasingly more open toward people’s differences to some extent. However, simply getting rid of the two gender categories or adding a third might not necessarily work for competition. While it has worked in other areas of life, public bathrooms for example, sports are a more complicated matter than simply which door one relates to more. I think that the Olympic Committee, although it has made some grave mistakes in the past, is trying to rectify this situation and it has allowed intersex athletes to compete. However, there are many more stories where it did not allow athletes to compete, stripped them of their medals or publicly humiliated them. This cannot continue and as long as the Olympic Committee keeps the two defined genders separate, which is not necessarily a bad idea, they need to find another way to divide the line so that people are not humiliated and people’s dreams are not crushed. If, as a culture, we want everybody to succeed we cannot demonstrate to kids that if they achieve their dreams those dreams could be snatched away from them just because they are different. 


Works Cited:

Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Genel, Myron. "Gender Verification No More?." Medscape Women's Health. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 21 Dec 2013. <>.

Heggie, Vanessa. United States of America. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Testing sex and gender in sports; reinventing, reimagining, and reconstructing histories. 2010. Web.


International Olympic Committee. Medical and Scientific Department. IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism. Lausanne Switzerland: , 2012. Web. <>.

NBC10.Com, Staff, writ. "Gender-Neutral Restrooms Become the Law." NBC: NBC10, Philadelphia, 10 May 2013. Web. 21 Dec 2013. <>.

Shapiro, Samantha. "Caught in the middle." ESPN Olympic Sports. (2012): n. page. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <>.