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Are some female athletes too "masculine" to compete as women?

Gender Policing In Women's Sport Continues

18-year old Indian sprinter Dutee Chand appeals ban from Commonwealth Games


For the second time in five years, a non-western female sprinter in her teens has been targeted by the two major international sports governing bodies, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), subjected to invasive medical and media scrutiny, and found to be too "masculine" to qualify as a woman in sporting competition.

The first was the case of South African Caster Semenya, whose anatomy and physiology became front-page news in 2009. After six months of unspecified medical interventions, as determined by the IAAF and the IOC and involving hormonal therapy and possibly surgery, she was deemed sufficiently "normal" to compete as a woman. Runner walking on track

The organizations have developed guidelines for dealing with cases of "sexual development disorders" (including "intersexed" athletes and women with high testosterone levels). The IAAF even empowers its officials to authorize surgical interventions and hormonal manipulation, a process outlawed in the wider world of sport.

As I wrote in 2012, "Incredibly, the impetus for any initial screening - the first step that would then lead to a battery of tests, and ultimately, to hormone therapy and surgery - required sport authorities to send photographs of the women" under suspicion.

At that time, I thought it highly unlikely that an "intersexed" female athlete would consent to invasive surgery - the removal of internal testes - in order to satisfy the IAAF.

I was wrong.

The IAAF definition of the "reliable source" who may start these witch-hunts is vague enough to encompass a vindictive coach or athlete from another team. In the current case of 18-year old Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, this appears to have been exactly what happened. After a complaint was lodged, she was summoned for an ultrasound test which, trusting doctors and officials, she had assumed was a routine drug test. She was then told she would not be eligible for the upcoming Commonwealth Games because she had excessive levels of testosterone. Dutee decided to challenge the ruling at the Court of Arbitration in Sport. Her case has prompted international support, including an online petition initiated by western sports advocates and researchers.

It is not coincidental that these two high profile cases involved women of color from non-western countries. One only needs to consider western definitions of female heterosexual attractiveness as symbolized by the vast majority of super-models and Hollywood stars - their skin color, height, weight, hair, breast size - to understand how a muscular, flat-chested African or Indian teenager fails to meet prevailing standards and is labelled "masculine" by a group of predominantly white men.

As South African sport administrator Leonard Cheune said in 2009, "Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl?... It is outrageous for people from other countries to tell us, ‘We want to take her to a laboratory because we don't like her nose, or her figure.' I say this is racism, pure and simple." Dutee Chand's advisor, Dr. Payoshni Mitra, went further, accurately labelling the surgical procedures institutionalized "genital mutilation."

There is no doubt in my mind that racism and homophobia are at work in these case. Any female athlete who fails to conform to western standards of heterosexual attractiveness may be under suspicion. In contrast, most western sportswomen understand the rules of engagement and can take the necessary steps - hairstyle, makeup, clothing, jewellery, removal of facial hair - to produce a socially acceptable appearance. It would be difficult to find a full-breasted western woman, black or white, among top female sprinters, or middle- and long-distance runners, since a specific body type is important for success in these events. Yet most of these muscular, flat-chested western runners appear to have escaped media and official scrutiny.

The 2011 IAAF Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women's Competition have subsequently been criticized by medical researchers, social scientists, human rights advocates, ethicists and others. Their critiques of the IAAF's six main principles are summarized below. Hyperandrogenism is defined as "excessive production of androgenic hormones (Testosterone)."

  • The early prevention of problems associated with hyperandrogenism;

There is no evidence that hyperandrogenism necessarily produces health problems, while treatment of the condition has documented health risks. The emphasis on health is simply a smokescreen for the underlying reliance on culturally specific notions of femininity, a code word in sport for heterosexual attractiveness.

  • A respect for confidentiality in the medical process and the need to avoid public exposure of young females with hyperandrogenism who may be psychologically vulnerable;

This is worthwhile principle, but one that has repeatedly been violated. The fact that initial screening of female athletes can be prompted by smear campaigns on the part of athletes, coaches, administrators and the media threatens these women's privacy and confidentiality.

  • The evaluation of complex cases on an anonymous basis through the use of a panel of independent international medical experts in the field;

Exclusive reliance on the medical model of sexuality and so-called sexual development disorders is problematic. Even "medical experts" acknowledge that definitions of sex and gender have a significant social component.

  • A respect for the very essence of the male and female classifications in athletics;

This is a strangely dated and meaningless principle. There is no "essence", nor is there a clear male/female binary; scientists have identified at least six markers of sex, none binary.

  • A respect for the fundamental notion of fairness of competition in female athletics;
It cannot be assumed that hyperandrogenism automatically confers an advantage, or that the IAAF policy will effectively uncover all cases. It is more likely that black women and women of colour will be unfairly targeted for screening.
  • An acknowledgement that females with hyperandrogenism may compete in women's competition in athletics subject to compliance with IAAF Rules and Regulations.

The IAAF refuses to define the level of testosterone that is considered acceptable in order to qualify for women's competition. Instead, the authorities work on a case-by-case basis, thereby rendering themselves unaccountable and non-transparent.

Gender stereotyping in sport 

What are the implications for youth sport, and for parents of female athletes? We may have thought that the days when athletic girls were labelled tomboys, young sportswomen were called butch, and parents of sissy boys enrolled them in martial arts classes have passed. Yet these current trends demonstrate not only that gender stereotyping in sport remains with us, but also that the most powerful international authorities on sport are actively encouraging racist, homophobic and dated thinking about sex and gender, with devastating results for young female athletes who fail to meet an arbitrary standard of femaleness. As Dutee has declared, "It is wrong to change your body for sport... [it is] a primitive, unethical rule." Yet, young women who have devoted their lives to sport will probably continue to submit to hormonal and surgical interventions if mandated by the authorities.

Parents need to encourage balance and perspective in their children's approach to sport, and to avoid creating a family unit that obsesses over the sporting career of one child, who may then grow up to risk her health and well-being in the quest for Olympic medals. Children, female and male, need to know that there is a wide range of behavior, appearance and self-presentation, not based on gender, that are characteristics of a happy, healthy athlete, and that their bodies are their own, not the property of parents, coaches or faceless international sport authorities.

Further reading

Karkazis, K. et al. Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes, Am J Bioethics. 2012;12(7): 3-16.


Lenskyj, H. (2012) Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry (Houndsmill: Palgrave Pivot), Chapter 6.

UPDATE:  On July 27, 2015, the CAS announced a decision that was as surprising as it was enlightened: It immediately suspended the IAAF's hyperandrogenism regulations for a maximum of two years, giving as grounds the absence of "scientific evidence about the quantitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes."  

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, Canada who writes frequently on issues of gender and sexuality in sport.