Good At Sports? You Might Be a Man, Says IAAF

If you couldn’t tell from the Caster Semenya controversy, elite level athletics—especially track and field—have a sketchy relationship with so-called “gender policing.” From sex chromatin tests to DNA based methods, since the 1960s athletic governing bodies have felt the need to verify the sex of female athletes. What began under the guise of preventing Communist countries from entering men into women’s competitions transformed into policies and procedures steeped in sexism, chauvinism, and ignorance. Despite the testing’s inaccuracies and constant failings, the IAAF (track and field’s governing body) continues to test women whom they suspect may be incorrectly sexed. This has led female athletes, fearing they may have their privacy and human rights trampled upon while being humiliated by the media, to undergo treatment to make them less masculine.

The IAAF has set out to determine the male threshold for testosterone. In order for women to be allowed to compete, their levels must not venture into this territory. If they do, the athlete must have surgery or receive hormone therapy. Whether or not the extra hormones that cause the concern benefit the athlete does not preclude them from the intense round of examinations. Of course, male athletes are left completely out of the conversation. No one cares what their hormone levels are. Surely there are some men whose testosterone exceeds what might be considered a normal range but it’s ok because for men, the sky is the limit. In a sport where the goal is to be the fastest, if you’re a woman you can still be accused of being too fast.

When the whole Caster situation popped off, an Italian runner named Elisa Piccione said, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” Someone should have informed her that had Caster not competed, her ass still would have come in 5th place, so maybe she should shut the hell up. What began as a xenophobic measure to prevent cheating is now a gendered take on racial profiling. With officials’ prejudices and fears in charge, anyone who doesn’t sit right with them is liable to be tested. This process is sending a codified message through athletics about possibly intersexed athletes: You’re too good to be a woman but not good enough to be a man.

One of the questions brought to the surface by these happenings is what, exactly, constitutes an ‘unfair advantage.’ In athletics, the entire purpose is to have an edge on the competition. Is it right to deny athletes a naturally gained advantage? How is this different than any natural gift that separates elite athletes from the rest of the population? Whether members of the athletic community believe it is unfair or not, it does not give anyone the right to scrutinize or question another’s sex based on assumptions about appearance and performance that were formed in a sexist society.

Helen Stephens and Jesse Owens

The policing of femininity on the national stage should make you wonder how much of what we deem masculine is based on science and how much is sociologically informed. We are seeing international politics and Eurocentric standards of beauty imposed upon other nations. The number of athletes undergoing this therapy is confidential but I’d be willing to bet there was a disparate percentage of people of color that underwent testing.

What’s interesting to me is the blatant disregard for every other factor that contributes to becoming a world-class athlete. If you continuously pumped random ladies full of testosterone and plopped them on a track, field, or what-have-you, they wouldn’t automatically rise to the top of the ranks. There’s a lot more that goes into sports than being muscular, recovering quickly, or whatever advantages these hormones may (but probably don’t) provide. No matter what natural advantage you have, if you don’t have an extraordinary skill set, knowledge of your sport, and participate in intense training, you’re never going to be an Olympic-caliber athlete.

To discredit the life of hard work someone has put in because you think they’re “too manly” is utterly ridiculous and disrespectful to all athletes, male or female. Given the conversations around the inclusion of trans* athletes, these committees are well aware that issues of sex and gender are not cut-and-dried. They need to realize the only way for intersex athletes to compete without stigmatization is by eliminating all sex verification procedures.

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Brittani Nichols is a Los Angeles based comedy person. When she's not tweeting about white people or watching television, she's probably eating pizza. Actually, she's probably doing all three of those things concurrently and when she's not doing THAT, she's sleeping. Brittani also went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know.

Brittani has written 328 articles for us.


  1. i just wanted to say this piece was super great and also has the best title in recent autostraddle history

  2. I don’t know if testing testosterone is the best way to do this or not, but I don’t see what is sexist or wrong about ensuring female athletes are in fact female through a routine blood test. All athletes are subjected to lots of testing, whether they are blood tests or urine tests or whatever else to ensure they aren’t taking certain drugs. If they want to test gender from that sample of blood, who cares? The thing is, I don’t think gender equality means pretending men and women are the same. It’s a fact of life — men are faster, stronger, and better at sports that require speed and power. Skill-wise, I think the U.S. women’s national team is top-notch. I think Hope Solo is one of the best goalkeepers in the world — her instincts are amazing. But there is a reason that for practice, the US women’s national soccer team scrimmages against 15-year-old boys and loses. The incentive is there for a man to come in a dominate female competition.

    Accusing women of being men or selecting only certain female athletes for testing just because they are deemed unattractive or too good is obviously offensive and sexist, but having a routine test performed on all female athletes doesn’t seem anymore offensive than banning betablockers from the Olympics, even though some people (like me!) need betablockers because of conditions they may suffer from.

    Why don’t get men tested for their gender? That’s a silly question and pretends reality doesn’t exist — the reality that men are built to be more athletically strong than women. But if it would make people feel better, they can test the men for their gender too. I think they should just test everyone for gender and make the issue simple. But I suspect that still won’t quiet the cries of “sexism” from some people.

    • Oh god, I just realized I used the word “gender” and someone is going to bitch me out. Let me do it for you: “gender is a social construct blah blah blah.” Then I mean sex, or whatever the PC word is to describe being born male or female.

      • Well done, you corrected yourself, next time try ‘sorry i accidentally used a word i didn’t mean, when reading replace ‘x’ with ‘y’ rather than being a sarcastic fucknugget.

      • I guess I feel that no one should be tested for their sex. I mean, I am in no way a professional sports player so I bet there is a LOT of nuance and such like that I am missing out on, but chromosomes don’t really matter, do they? I get that testosterone gives a potential advantage if it’s coupled with rigorous training, but it’s not such a big margin imo that it’s worth trying to keep such a rigid binary as the one described in this article. I am not against binary identified people, obvs, or even that a binary exists, but not allowing deviations from that binary is ridiculous. And I mean, a trans woman is still a woman, for example. I don’t care how much testosterone is in her system.

        And I am skeptical about the sex change just to succeed thing. I know people will do some wild shit to gain an edge in sports but every so often someone comes along and claims that people are doing these craaaazy things to advance and then it turns out that no one actually did it, it was just someone trying to stir up controversy. There was claims at one time that women were getting pregnant only to abort and thereby benefit from pregnancy hormones. Problem is, no documented cases of that existed. It was just one guy trying to stir up hysteria.

        • Agreed, it’s gender panic part forever.

          I’m still trying to wrap my head on why people are so hard pressed to police the bodies of people. It is dehumanizing and I cannot stand it, it really drives me nuts.

          I need to see a kitten to calm my nerves.

          • The sports world is behind the times in a lot of ways, I think. It’s even worse in figure skating! They still judge women especially for the slightest things, down to the color of their skates, or so I read.

            I mean, I am not against gender performance but that’s not what this article describes. This is just plain old gender and sex policing and it’s sick to watch. I firmly believe one’s body only belongs to one’s self and it baffles me that so few people seem to agree.

            Here, I found this for you:


    • Putting aside the gender essentialism prevalent in sports (the men are stronger on average than the women! never mind that the men have been allowed to participate in specific sports for longer which thus has given them more time to train and that men are encouraged from a young age, as a group, to be athletic and women are not necessarily), which is something I could argue about for hours but won’t get into, if everyone should be tested then what about people who don’t clearly fit in one category or another? There’s such variation between individual people in terms of hormones and whatnot that I just don’t see an easy way to create two discrete categories without leaving a lot of people out.

    • I see what you’re saying. However, it’s sometimes not so simple to tell if someone is “male” or “female.” What if someone is XXY? What if someone is intersex? What if someone has androgen insensitivity? What if someone is XX but has more testosterone than the average female? That’s the problem they are running up against in this situation. It’s just not as simple as they like to think, and any time we divide groups by sex (bathrooms, schools, sports) we have to make room for people who don’t fit neatly in the boxes.

    • It’s not any genetic/biological sex, but additional testosterone that gives advantage when it comes to muscle strength. Women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome have XY chromosomes, but actually have disadvantage compared to other women, because they are completely immune to testosterone and other androgens.

    • I would agree with you but I think the point is that they should be checking their chromosomes or something (as others have pointed out, being XX or XY doesn’t necessarily mean being biologically male or female thanks to stuff like Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, and what of other combinations of chromosomes like X or XXY or XYY?) but rather checking their testosterone levels, and that doesn’t need to be done in such a way that calls the athlete’s gender identity into question. Because it really is testosterone that makes the best male athletes better than the best female athletes. And after all, it’s not like there aren’t MEN out there who try to dope with *extra* testosterone to push ahead of even their fellow dudes. Somehow I doubt that their gender identity is called into question when that happens.

      • I meant they should NOT be checking their chromosomes or something. Wow. What a difference a word makes!

  3. Last week’s Sports Illustrated has a terrific piece on trans athletes and the legit vs stupid areas of concern.

  4. I’d be interested in seeing results of a vote among the women that would be affected by this testing – see how they feel about it.

  5. I tried to write a paper about this once, and clearly should have turned this in instead. I just think it’s endlessly interesting because everything’s in there, you know? So much is played out in athletics – gender policing, binary, hierarchy, racism, patriarchy, feminist backlash, legal ish, heteronormativity, beauty norms, etc. – all of the social constructs, but at the same time science and bodies and instinct. Obviously, my paper made no sense.

    What I mean is, this is making us look critically at the “scientific definition” of sex and acknowledge that there is a ton of gray area biologically and a huge social influence on science. And that can only lead to good things.

  6. It is really a fascinating question, because the reality of sports is that we divide them by sex. So I guess as we continue to strive harder and harder, and as elite athletes become stronger than they’d ever been before, new questions are bound to arise. However, as noted, this isn’t exactly a “new” question, it’s just sounds like now it’s being justified more scientifically.

    What I do find bizarre is this whole idea that we need to ensure a “level playing field” for women’s sports. In men’s sports, that concern arises only when a man aquires the advantage illegally, through steroids. No one has said “oh man, Michael Phelps won 7 gold medals. No one is going to catch him. We should limit his testosterone.” Or Usain Bolt.

    I’m not entirely sure I have a point. But this article made me think about it from a different angle than before, so thanks.

    • Speaking of Michael Phelps, I think he’s a great example of the issue at hand in another way. Does anyone else remember how the commentators were going on and on about him at the last summer Olympics? They were putting graphics up on the screen showing how his arms were disproportionately long, his legs were short, his feet were massive paddles and his lung capacity was tremendous, all of which made him extra suited to swimming. What they weren’t doing though, was suggesting that he shouldn’t be allowed to swim against people who aren’t freaks of nature (any more than the average athlete is I mean). So apparently if you’re a man you can’t be too gifted, but women have to stay within certain limits or else they are some kind of monster.

    • “No one has said “oh man, Michael Phelps won 7 gold medals. No one is going to catch him. We should limit his testosterone.” Or Usain Bolt.”

      THIS. great analogy.

    • There was another interesting situation when I was in high school in the synchronized swimming world. One of the most talented synchronized swimmers in the country at the time was a man called Bill May. However, he was barred from international competition because FINA defines synchronized swimming as a women’s sport. In actual fact, men have a disadvantage when it comes to synchronized swimming, mostly due to the fact that their center of buoyancy is usually in a different place. But the idea of a man competing in synchro was just too confusing for FINA/the IOC/whoever.

  7. this is insane. what about the flip side, “if a man is too feminine, it’s ok cuz he’ll just lose?”

  8. Thanks for writing about this Autostraddle! I read an article on Jezebel about this but found the comments section very disheartening because what is normally a very feminist and open minded community was being very shut in about it. Someone was talking about the possibility of men undergoing sex change surgery solely in order to win.

    It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my aunt about it. She competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and was telling us how she had to undergo chromosomal testing to prove that she was female because an intersex athlete had been “caught” competing in the female category some years earlier. While the concerns of the sporting bodies may be rooted in a genuine confusion about how to sustain a gender binary system in the reality of a world where not all people fit neatly into those two little boxes, she talked about the intersex competitor as a freak of nature exploiting their genetic makeup for advantage.

    • “I read an article on Jezebel about this but found the comments section very disheartening”

      –my reaction to most things posted on Jezebel.

  9. I don’t believe that this issue is being handled well at all and is leading to unfair discrimination towards people with androgen insensitivity (AIS). Education about this disorder is extremely lacking to the point that most people don’t even really know what this disorder is. The disorder comes from a genetic mutation on the X-chromosome that leaves the androgen (a male hormone) receptor in affected individuals unable to bind and process androgen. Individuals that have AIS produce the same amount of androgen and testosterone as phenotypically normal men do, but they can’t process it. Generally these individuals will also have the development of internal testes (instead of ovaries and a uterus) along with phenotypically normal female external genitalia. The development of the male internal genitalia is due to the testes genes that are present on the Y-chromosome. Also, during brain development in utero, the brain is not masculinized like it is in phenotypically normal males. The normal female phenotype, paired with a normally feminized brain make this a difficult disorder for people to even realize that they have.

    There is currently much debate over whether or not this excess of male hormones in the bodies of these female athletes is enhancing their performance in the same way that taking steroids would. Personally, I don’t think there is any evidence to prove that AIS increases a woman’s athletic performance, seeing as she is not really able to even process the male hormones within her body. I believe it is hard work and perseverance that leads to great female athletes and a lack of education that leads to discrimination.

    • I would imagine that someone with AIS could inject themselves (I say them because it has undoubtedly occurred that someone with AIS has also been trans*) with as much testosterone as they wanted and the effect would range anywhere from nothing to small. Similarly, someone who is uber sensitive to testosterone wouldn’t need a very high level to benefit greatly from even a small amount in their blood. So really, testing testosterone levels is to some degree baloney (well, at least not without other information collected). And then there is just plain genetic strength not tied to hormones (I’ve seen this empirically in my family and will probably find out with myself when I finally get on T-blockers).

  10. This whole thing just arrrrrrrgh. I already arrrghed about it on Facebook and now I’m going to arrrgh about it here. It’s so offensive on so many different levels.

    If intersex athletes, who through a gift of nature have athletically superior bodies, can’t fit into the standards established in sports, then change the damn standards, not the bodies of the athletes!

  11. Oh, this made me remember when I was in high school and the guys used to yell at me stuff about hormones because I was the strongest girl.

    Sick and sad world.

  12. Thanks for the excellent article, I had been uncomfortable with the Caster Semenya controversy since the start in a vague wobbly way but couldn’t really articulate why, besides yknow the usual Patriarchy! grumbling.

  13. Holy hell, I didn’t know about any of that and I’m appalled. Forcing women to undergo invasive tests and possibly surgery or HRT just so they can compete!? What the fuck!
    The whole “unfair advantage” argument is such bullshit. Being tall is a distinct advantage when playing basketball, yet I don’t see any sports governing bodies forbidding basketballers to compete if they’re taller than some arbitrary threshold – I wonder why??

    On a more positive note, Caster Semenya is so brave! She had to endure all those traumatically invasive tests, criticism and hurtful comments, all of this barely out of teenagehood and in front of the world, yet she’s back on the tracks. It takes real strength to not break down in the face of such violent outlash. Though it saddens me that apparently, she’s now under some from of “treatment” because she felt she had to do it – ugh.

    Also, from the article :
    “In the 1960s, female athletes had to walk nude in front of a panel of experts who assessed their sexual credentials. ”
    “The tell-tale signs are illustrated graphically in the IAAF rulebook, a sliding scale on everything from sexual organs to lower back hair and breast shape.”
    This, I can’t even. Just what the fuck.

  14. This whole controversy makes my brain melt into a pile of mush. Wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to make sense of it. This article is a good starting point.

    I feel really sad for all athletes that this insane discriminatory behaviour is being allowed. Everyone knows it is wrong, who’s going to challenge this? What can we do to stop it?

  15. I have a high testosterone level (commonly wonky ovaries), outside the normal range for women, and all it has left me with is acne.

    I love my settee, did a 5km “run” on Sunday and genuinely thought I was gonna pass out. 6 year olds were running past me.

    To be an elite athlete take more than hormone balance. That being said even at (or perhaps more pronounced) at the elite level there is a difference between men and women. I do not know how to facilitate the performance of dedicated inter-sex at such a level.

  16. Great article! I’m with the Canadians from the star article: “instead of having sport based on sex, we’re basing it on ability.”

    Yes, fuck the binary!

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