Threatening the Gender Hierarchy in Women’s Sport

Threatening the Gender Hierarchy in Women’s Sport

Critics of South African track star Caster Semenya warn that her continued participation in women’s track and field without taking testosterone suppressants will mark “the end” of women’s sports. I have a vested interest in continuing sporting opportunities for women—I am a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies PhD student writing my dissertation on the subject, and a former NCAA track and field athlete. However, I am not worried about Semenya, or the ongoing case around her, ending women’s sports. In fact, I think her continued participation and refusal to alter her hormones poses a necessary threat to the sexism and racism implicit in the rigid gender binary of sporting structures. The history of sex testing in the women’s division at the international level shows the futility of policing a sex binary, while the current policies and procedures of ensuring “female athlete eligibility” seem to specifically question the “female-ness” of black and brown women athletes from the Global South. While mandatory chromosomal sex testing by Olympic officials between 1968–2002 resulted in high profile cases for a handful of women athletes all around the globe, the most recent turn to hormonal testing on a case-by-case basis has put two women from India along with Semenya in the spotlight.1

A Threat to the Status Quo of Women’s Sports

Caster Semenya’s ongoing court battle in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and now the Swiss Supreme Court, has made headlines across major news outlets over the past four months—and the fight is far from over. Since the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAf) first flagged her for “gender verification” after her victory at the World Championships in 2009, Semenya has endured a global spotlight on her gender, anatomy, and appearance. Many supporters—academics, journalists, and athletes alike—have pointed out the particularly potent mix of racism, sexism, neocolonialism, and homophobia she is up against.2 As queer studies scholar Tavia Nyong’o so deftly explains: “If ever a case called for an intersectional analysis that included queer and trans perspectives, as well as anti-racist and anti-imperialist ones, this should be one.”3

Caster Semenya. (Meeting de Paris, Stade Charlety/Wikimedia Commons)

Most recently, court documents reveal that the IAAF egregiously argued Semenya was “biologically male” in court. One of the lead IAAF scientists also predicts the addition of an intersex category for competition. Intersex is a broad umbrella term for a variety of anatomical, chromosomal, and hormonal variations that don’t neatly align to binary definitions of male or female. However, Caster Semenya, along with so many athletes before her who have been sex tested, identify as women, not intersex. Therefore, the IAAF skirts this issue of naming by using the term “differences of sex development” or “DSD” in place of intersex and currently focuses on testosterone levels as the sole indicator of an athlete having a “DSD.”

Meanwhile, journalists describe Semenya’s successes on the track as if they are so expected that they’re almost mundane. Words like “dominant” or winning “easily,” downplay her serious training and expert racing strategy. As Lindsay Crouse pointed out in an op-ed, there has been much more coverage about Semenya’s hormone levels than her athletic performances, or that of her competitors. The media attention, instead of lauding women’s track-and-field athletic performances, focuses on Semenya’s “threatening” presence to women’s sport.

A Stifled History of Exclusion

History tells us that women who run fast are often suspected of being men. At the 1936 Olympics, American Helen Stephens beat the favorite from Poland, Stella Walasiewicz. The Polish press subsequently accused her of being a man. U.S. journalists fired back that Walasiewicz, who lived and competed in the U.S. but represented Poland at the Olympics, was actually the male masquerader. The Olympic committee officially confirmed both were female, most likely based on visual checks. It was only after a highly successful career of competing and then coaching in women’s track and field that an autopsy revealed Walasiewcz had intersex anatomy.

Walasiewcz’s death in 1980 occurred during a period between the 1968 and 2002 Olympics in which the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission tested the chromosomes of all female athletes at competitions. Officials told women who had any variation from XX chromosomes to fake an injury and drop out, amounting to a secret, systematic exclusion of an unknown number of women. If they refused, they faced an explicit ban, and they would be stripped of medals and their records erased. While this seems to have affected women from all over the world based on the handful of cases we know of, journalists, officials, and some athletes described a need for this testing largely in terms of the Cold War—questioning the femininity of muscular women from Eastern bloc countries.4 This anxiety over muscular, non-Western women comes up in a different form in today’s debate, but instead officials and media outlets are focusing on black and brown women from the Global South.

Stanisława Walasiewicz. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite mandatory testing that aimed to exclude all women with intersex conditions, there are historical examples of female-identified athletes with hormonal or chromosomal variations in women’s sports before, after, and potentially during this period of mandatory sex testing. Disability studies scholar Ellen Samuels analyzed the inconsistency in chromosomal sex testing practices in Maria José Martínez-Patiño’s 1985 case.5 Martínez-Patiño was re-tested at that year’s World University Games after forgetting to bring her “femininity certificate,” which certified that she had XX chromosomes. Patiño failed her second sex check. She was stripped of her medals and lost her place on her team and her scholarship; the publicity of the “failed” sex check ruined her personal life. She eventually fought the federation and won, but not until 1988. Samuels surmised, “either her certificate was simply issued based on her ‘obviously feminine’ appearance…or the testing process was remarkably sloppy.”6

Clearly, both visual checks and the seemingly objective, airtight chromosome testing had inconsistencies. I say this not to support an ever more strenuous testing procedure, but to point out that women with any number of the physiological traits under the umbrella of intersex have been competing in women’s sports since its modern inception, and potentially even during the years of sex testing. In almost all of these historical instances, the women competing were not aware of their intersex status until the sport’s medical commissioners revealed it.

Yet, women’s sports have not ended.

Women with higher testosterone and/or chromosomal variations were and are as much a part of women’s sports as so-called XX women, who are supposedly in need of protection now.

Eligible Genders

In 2018, the IAAF implemented a policy called “Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification,” which the CAS upheld at the end of April. The policy describes a female athlete with higher testosterone as a “relevant athlete,” who is then subjected to further testing and possibly banned or required to suppress her testosterone levels below a certain threshold. This rule also applies only to certain track races—a competitor becomes a “relevant athlete” if she competes in the 400-meter to one-mile track events. The IAAF decided on this range based on an experiment they commissioned, which supposedly demonstrates the connection between testosterone levels and performance advantage in this range of distances. However, there are telling discrepancies between the “restricted events” covered in the regulation, and the events in which testosterone is especially relevant, according to this research. The 2018 IAAF policy leaves off two field events named in the research and extends the “restricted” events to include the 1,500-meter and one mile without explanation, except that Semenya runs these races as well.

As we have seen with Semenya’s case, the impetus to verify the gender of a female athlete only starts when she threatens narrow notions of femininity—when she’s too muscular, too fast, and too far outside a white, Western ideal of womanhood. Before Semenya, Santhi Soudarajan, a sprinter from India was subjected to “gender verification” following her second place finish in the 2006 Asian Games. She “failed” this test, which is still based on a biological sex binary despite the term “gender,” ending her career. Duttee Chand, also a sprinter from India, was banned from the national team with no explanation after undergoing “gender verification” tests. She fought and won her case in the CAS in 2015.7 Four unknown women from “rural or mountainous regions of developing countries” (likely a euphemism for black or brown women) were flagged for gender verification during the 2012 Olympic cycle and underwent surgery with the intention of lowering their naturally occurring testosterone.8

What we have now, after the official “end” to sex testing in 2002, is simply a repackaged version of old sex-control measures that seem to specifically target black and brown women from the Global South. International sports governing bodies are now focused solely on testosterone as a measure of athleticism—a measure scholars Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young argue is fundamentally flawed because, as they describe, “testosterone doesn’t drive a single path to athletic performance.” Furthermore, this new stage of sex testing appears to be tailor-made to regulate Semenya by specifically focusing the policy on middle-distance track races, which are her specialty.

A Historic Case in the Making

Sports policymakers, journalists, fans, and others in the sporting community have failed to recognize that women with higher testosterone have been a part of women’s sports all along. Women with intersex traits will not spell the end of women’s sports as some have suggested. But continuing to police women’s bodies and undervalue their athletic performances just might.

Caster Semenya’s fight is not over. She has publicly stated she refuses to suppress her testosterone and intends to continue competing at the 800-meter distance. The paranoia around her case is not misplaced—it is either exciting or anxiety inducing precisely because it could signal a huge shift in the history of women’s track and field and women’s sport more broadly. This case could, perhaps, bring a real end to sex testing.


  1. Lindsay Peiper, Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sport (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016). Return to text.
  2. Jennifer Doyle, “Dirt off Her Shoulders,” GLQ 19, no 4 (2013): 419-33; Neville Hoad, “‘Run, Caster Semenya, Run!’: Nativism and the Translations of Gender Variance,” Safundi 2, no. 4 (2010): 397-405; Zine Magubane, “Spectacles and Scholarship: Caster Semenya, Intersex Studies, and the Problem of Race in Feminist Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39, no 3, (2014): 761-85. Return to text.
  3. Tavia Nyong’o, “The unforgivable transgression of being Caster Semenya,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 20, no. 1 (2010): 96. Return to text.
  4. Peiper, Sex Testing. Return to text.
  5. Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (New York: New York University Press, 2014). Return to text.
  6. Samuels, Fantasies of Identification, 198. Return to text.
  7. Pieper, Sex Testing, 183. Return to text.
  8. Patrick Fénichel, et. al., “Molecular Diagnosis of 5-Reductase Deficiency in 4 Elite Young Female Athletes Through Hormonal Screening for Hyperandrogenism,” The Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 9, no. (2013): 1056; Pieper, Sex Testing. The quote is from Fénichel. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Caster Semenya in London, 2012. (La sud africaine/Wikimedia Commons)

Valerie Moyer is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University studying the surveillance of athletes’ bodies in women’s sports, and specifically hormone regulations in track and field at the international level. She competed in varsity cross country and track and field at the University of Vermont.