‘Morphing Gender Boundaries’ Vs ‘Sex Verification Test’ – Its impact on female athletes

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Women have progressively set foot in the male-dominated sphere of sports, much like several domains of society. Nothing, however, has cloaked a woman from the critical and disapproving gaze of the public, the sports panellists, or their male counterparts. This general sentiment has echoed in several ways, be it in the form of an enormous wage gap, the objectification of female athletes or their "manly" appearance which it seems is displeasing and offending to the eye. At one-point, effeminate apparel was also suggested to preserve and enhance the aesthetic value of female sports. Mere decades ago, a new system has threatened the career of scores of women athletes, although unintentionally. The introduction of “sex verification test” in sports has put women athletes in a major predicament and under intense scrutiny. Certain sporting events are restricted to a specific sex or pertain to mixed-sex team composition, wherein it is found necessary to determine the eligibility of an athlete to compete in these restricted categories. The practice of ascertaining the biological sex of an athlete was introduced to confirm the candidates’ eligibility to compete in a gender classified sports event. Principally, sex determination tests were adopted as a means to prevent male athletes from masquerading as female athletes, thereby securing unjust advantage and propelling their success rate. The apprehensions were fuelled by several incidents, particularly, when Dora Ratjen, a German athlete, was caught in the vortex of gender fraud. The controversy resulted in Germany surrendering the gold medal won by Ratjen at the European Athletics Championship. Further investigation and physical examinations established that Dora had intersex genitalia. The remainder of Ratjen’s life was voluntarily led as a man. This practice came to be adopted by various sports organizations in diverse forms and degrees over the years in different parts of the world. It has become a qualifying feature in many high-profile sporting events to preserve the authenticity and fairness of the game. Ever since it was introduced in the year 1950 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), thereafter in European Athletics Championship in the year 1966, followed by Olympic Games in the year 1968; it has been clouded with controversy. Purportedly, male athletes outperform female athletes by 10%. This popular belief inspired the apprehension that female athletes who performed exceedingly well and often beyond the threshold of physical capabilities of their sex belonged to the male gender. It was the outcome of this conjecture that sex verification test was deemed to be indispensable. Even though the bonafide objective of this practice was to guard the spirit of sports, the means of achieving this goal coupled with the repercussions that flow renders this practice questionable. The parameters for these tests kept changing when push came to shove. Initially, physical examination was used as a method for gender verification, but it was widely resented as women athletes were required to “nude parade” before a panel of doctors. The discomfort was palpable and women felt violated. This method of gender verification was futile in the case of ‘pseudo-hermaphrodite’ athletes with ambiguous external genitalia. “Intersex” individuals exhibit a condition known as Disorder of Sex Development (“DSD”) and are born with varying degrees of sex characteristics that do not conform to the typical sex attributes. These characteristics include variations in hormone levels, reproductive organs, chromosomes, secondary sex features, or uncertain genitals. These tests sought to identify and bar “Intersex” individuals from competing as they were “not women” enough for the sport. Such gender-discriminatory exclusion was widely critiqued as unmerited and prejudicial. In time, sex chromatin testing was adopted to ascertain the chromosomal composition of the athlete and determine their sex. Sex chromatin analysis posed its challenges. This mechanism often yielded false-positive and false-negative results. It suffered a major setback when it was found to be of nugatory in the case of phenotypic females with male sex chromatin patterns. Phenotypic females run the risk of disqualification even though they possess no athletic advantage as a result of their congenital abnormality. It has throttled the ambitions of many deserving athletes. Ewa Janina Kłobukowska, a former Polish sprinter, was the first victim of an erroneous gender determination chromosomal test which declared her as “not female”. Consequently, all three world records held by her were annulled by I.A.A.F. The verdict administered a death blow to her reputation, achievements, and her long- standing profession. A similar fate awaited Maria José Martínez Patiño when she was stripped of her stature as an athlete due to her unusual chromosome test results. Her achievements, scholarship, and records were consequently revoked. Patiño’s rigorous protests against the unmerited disqualification resulted in her delayed reinstatement as an athlete by the I.A.A.F. Alas! It did little to save her severely wounded career. Gradually, the motivation behind testing shifted from biological sex to the athletic performance of the competitor. Endogenous testosterone levels were set to serve as the new marker to detect an athlete’s competitive advantage. Higher levels of testosterone were linked to enhanced athletic performance. Dutee Chand, an Indian Olympic Athlete, professional sprinter, and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community was disqualified for the Commonwealth Games owing to her 'hyperandrogenism’. The adjudication of The Court of Arbitration for Sports (“CAS”) in the case of Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) & The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rattled the existing IAAF testing schemes and, IAAF was compelled to temporarily suspend and reconsider their sex testing policies. CAS, in its verdict indicated the lack of conclusive evidence to prove that high levels of testosterone in females amplified their athletic prowess. In effect, CAS affirmed Chand’s eligibility status. ‘Hyperandrogenism’ testing policy is justifiably perceived as plain discrimination rather than a scientific rationale, given the fact that solely women have endured its reverberations. The traumatic account of Santhi Soundarajan’s suicide attempt to end the acute misery that followed her sex verification test failure was the loudest siren that fell on deaf ears. Caster Semenya, a South African female athlete, did not escape the harrowing aftermath of her sex verification test. Her homeland compatriots came out in full support and fought for justice. Her disqualification was classified as “racist” and violative of human rights and privacy. Subsequently, the regulations came to be amended. The familiar pattern of ordering sex determination test based upon preliminary suspicions that arise on account of visible deviance from performance marks and physical peculiarities does not escape one's eye. Sex test results can be classified as confidential and sensitive information. Despite the caution that was allegedly exercised or its lack thereof, there have been recurrent instances of sex test leaks that have fuelled public disdain towards the athletes in question, put them in social isolation, and elicited patronizing reactions. Suspensions, alterations, and modification of testing policies became a routine feature for I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. sex verification tests. It appears that I.O.C. and I.A.A.F have time and again yielded to the pressure by the medical and scientific community or a judicial verdict. Gender screening has done more harm than good. Countless female athletes were a victim of their biology. Anomalous chromosomal or hormonal makeup, atypical anatomy, and rare genetic abnormalities are stigmatized by exclusion. It has triggered sex identity crises, negative self-image, depression, and suicide. Several female athletes have adopted dangerous means such as genital mutilation surgery, sterilization, hormone regulation procedures, etc. to circumvent the unjust qualification criteria. This has put their mental, physical and emotional health in jeopardy. Women athletes have been the sole subject of this sordid scheme. It is utterly disquieting that a sportswoman's athletic talent can be vanquished by her deep voice, her chiselled muscles, her flat chest, her pronounced physique, her masculine stride, or perhaps a genetic disorder she was born with. It is heartening to see that gender testing regulations are now favourably evolving and not just in favour of women athletes. The spectrum of gender identities is continually expanding and percolating through unyielding ideologies of the world. We ought to embrace the idea that a person’s gender identity may or may not correspond to their biological sex. It will be exhilarating to witness the gradual disintegration of obdurate ideas of binary boundaries in sports.

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