Sex tests for athletes essentialise sexual differences, result in discrimination.
Yet again, a female athlete has been barred from competing. As per news reports, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) inferred that she is not as female as female athletes ought to be. She suffers from hyperandrogenism: her testosterone levels are equivalent to males’ or higher than females’, thus giving her an “unfair advantage” over her female competitors.
While calling out a female athlete must be a déjà vu moment for the SAI, one hopes this is not a replay of the Santhi Soundarajan episode. In 2006, Santhi, an Asian Games-winning athlete was stripped of her medal after tests revealed she was not quite female. She survived a suicide attempt only to work as a labourer at a brick kiln. In Santhi’s case, it was the presence of a Y chromosome. Now, it is the athlete’s high testosterone level that turned the tide against her.
In its defence, the SAI simply points to policies of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, given the history of debacles in the sex determination of athletes (remember Caster Semenya), who is fully female or male?
To make contests “fair”, sex-segregated sports require that only “real” females contest in, say, female events, not males posing as female. Starting from the late-1960s, sex tests became mandatory for all female athletes. The IAAF made female athletes parade nude in the presence of physicians who examined their genitalia. Those who passed this test were authorised female and handed the “Certificate of Femininity”.
Facing flak for these humiliating and imprecise “tests”, the IAAF and IOC started chromosomal testing in 1967. This search for the Y chromosome in females was projected as an “objective” verification of sexual identity. As a result, many were disqualified from sports and publicly shamed, including the Spanish hurdler, Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño. Like other sportswomen, Maria paid a heavy price, till she proved that her chromosomal condition did not give her more testosterone or “unfair advantage”. By the time Maria was reinstated, her sporting career had nearly reached the finishing line. Laboratory tests have since confirmed that the XX and XY distinction can be nebulous, making many women and men fail such tests. By the late-1990s, the IAAF and IOC ended mandatory sex tests and moved on to “better” techniques.
Androgens, especially testosterone, became the means towards definitive truth about sexual identity. It was claimed that testing for hyperandrogenism would root out the hormonally male and flag the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Testosterone was viewed as a more accurate “sex testing” benchmark; it did not comment on the sex of an individual but merely the hormonal composition. However, scientists have sharply disagreed about the continued…