Female Athletes and Gender Verification

Yet another incident of gender verification and resultant humiliation to an athlete at home has raised its head after Santhi Soundarajan’s case. Pinki Pramanik, Indian track athlete, has been remanded under judicial custody for 14 days with respect to an allegation by her ‘live in partner’ regarding her ‘different’ sex and repeated rapes. The athlete, if proven guilty, will be stripped off of her international medals since she participated in the events as a woman. Like every other sensational case, the media competes actively to prove her ‘maleness’ with the help of irresponsible authorities. The media hailed the results of an ‘unauthorized’ sex determination test conducted to prove her ‘maleness’ even before an official test was conducted.

The field of sports is one which adheres to strict dichotomisation of gender/sex. Gender verification is one such method which exposes such a dichotomisation. ‘Appearance’ (manly looks and behaviour) and ‘over performance’ are two factors that often lead to gender verification tests. As soon as suspicion of ‘real sex’ arises doctors are entrusted with the moral responsibility to speak in the name of science to stipulate or prescribe what 'real women' should be and how they should behave. This prescriptive action is quickly reinforced by proscriptive measures, on the basis of a bicategorical approach that is blind to nuances of lived realities (Ferez,2012).

This approach can only be seen as an extension of the discriminatory policies that sports in general had towards women. Not until 1920’s could the presence of women be seen in sports due to concerns about its effect on their biological reproductive functions and ‘feminine beauty’. After protests from women and the formation of a separate Women’s Sport Federation, the process of integration of women into sports slowly began, but the focus was predominantly on issues regarding the access to particular sporting items and a question of fairness in the field. It is at this juncture that a few cases of ‘male masquerade’ were reported, leading to gender verification tests.

History of Gender Verification in Sports

The precedent for gender verification in sports dates back to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when a few cases of ‘male masquerading’ were reported, and it came into force in 1968. The Official reason for conducting such a gender verification test is to be sure that the athletes are ‘real women’ for a fair competition. The first stage of gender verification involved parading nude women for physical examination. There was wide resentment against such insensitive forms of sex determination and the International Olympic Committee had to look for other modes of sex determination tests. Thus, in a second phase, laboratory-based screening of chromatin in bucal cells was carried out. The test seeks to find out female athletes with chromosomal disorders that apparently give them an unfair advantage. During a trial run of the test, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska became the first woman to be disqualified for having “an extra chromosome” and “internal male-like characteristics”. Since then, womanhood for sports was largely defined and reinforced by the lab-based screen test. Sex chromatin test thus became an exclusionary method that isolates athletes for not figuring in the bicategorical legal definition of sex. Critics argue that sex chromosome screening can be inaccurate and discriminatory because women with genetic variance but no muscular advantage over other genetically ‘correct’ woman fail the test, while missing out individuals with such an advantage (Fastiff, 1992).

Based on these criticisms, in an International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) sponsored symposia in 1990, it was proposed that women with intersex conditions may not exhibit different biophysical and anatomic condition relevant to sports performance outside the range of possibility of the XX-female athlete. These propositions were later reviewed and approved to eliminate blanket genetic screening with the retention of doping control. The IAAF argued that “these tests were no longer necessary because doping regulations required athletes to pass urine in front of witnesses and that modern sportswear was now so revealing that it seemed unfeasible that a man could masquerade as a woman” (Heggie,2010). Later on IOC also accepted the recommendations. As a follow up, Millennium Games Sydney 2000 became the first international games where the genetic makeup of female athletes was not tested.

Though it was a welcome initiative for women athletes who otherwise had to undergo much mental and physical trauma in the field, there was always an option that women athletes undergo tests ‘if required’. Abandoning of gender verification is only a temporary measure until the issues of “appearance” and “over performance” arise. That is why the Indian middle distance track athlete Santhi Soundarajan was made to face gender verification immediately after 2006 Asian Games held at Doha, Qatar. The silver medal she won in the games was stripped off of her on failing the gender test. It was argued that though she had the genetic makeup of a male (XY chromosome), she did not have any competitive advantage due to the mutated gene that failed to produce testosterone. Santhi’s case is also important in the sense that she passed all the gender tests conducted by the Athletic Federation of India. It exposed the pathetic situation of Indian Athletics when compared to international standards while reinforcing science’s role as a deciding factor in categorization of female bodies. After Santhi’s case, the chromatin test was introduced in India. A painful fact is that without seriously engaging with the complex reality she had been humiliated and pulled down, leading to a great loss for Indian Athletics.

The question of fairness should be on the playing field and not on the question of dictating limits for gender identity, because gender identity is a complex entity that resists simple classification. The guidelines that sports authorities set for the participants should not be discriminatory to the extent that they take on themselves the authority to decide ‘who is a male and who is not a female’. Image Credit: Wikipedia

By then, in the international arena, inclusionary policies for transsexual and transgender athletes had been initiated and were introduced in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This was particularly for the athletes who underwent Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). They had to undergo a blood test. The new rule states that transsexuals who have undergone a Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) can participate in athletics two years after the surgery. It is up to them to prove that they have completed sex reassignment surgery (SRS), obtained legal recognition and had hormonal therapy for sufficient time to ‘minimize gender related advantages’ in sports competitions. While this can be a measure of inclusion of the genetically disadvantaged, it can also be a great challenge to the sports authorities. According to Baljinder Singh (2011), the transsexual or transitioned athlete may pose a challenge to equity in sex segregated sport competition. Athletes transitioned from male to female are most likely to be seen as having an unfair competitive advantage in contests against women who are female by birth, and athletes who have completed a transition from female to male may fail the performance enhancing drug test if they take testosterone as part of their hormone therapy. That is the new policy is inclusionary in one sense while it is also exclusionary in another.

Having said that, in the contemporary sports culture where gender bicategorical institutions prevail, gender equality and women’s empowerment are constrained and continuing stereotypes of women’s physical abilities and social roles are reinstated. Commonsensically, men and women are to compete separately. But then the question of fairness should be on the playing field and not on the question of dictating limits for gender identity, because gender identity is a complex entity that resists simple classification. The guidelines that sports authorities set for the participants should not be discriminatory to the extent that they take on themselves the authority to decide ‘who is a male and who is not a female’. But what really happened to Santhi and is happening now with Pinki is that the sports authorities, state and media have formed a nexus in reinforcing simple gender bicategorisation, thereby taking on the moral responsibility of determining the athletes’ gender. At least in Pinki’s case, little importance has been given to the criminal offence she has been charged with—repeated rape. Rather, they go overboard in trying to establish her ‘gender identity’, which only helps to ruin an athlete’s hard earned name. If this is the direction the case will take, not only will Pinki and her live-in partner not get justice but on the contrary, Pinki will be humiliated and isolated for not figuring in a stipulated gender prescribed by the patriarchal sports world.


  1. Sykes, Heather (2006) ,Transsexual and Transgender Policies in Sports, Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 15(1), p 3-13.
  2. Ferez, Sylvain (2012), From Women’s Exclusion to Gender Institution: A Brief History of the Sexual Categorisation Process within Sport, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29(2), p 272-285.
  3. Heggie, Venessa (2010), Testing Sex and Gender in Sports; Reinventing, Reimagining and Reconstructing Histories, Endeavour, 34(4, p 157-163.
  4. Fastiff, Pamela B (1992), Gender Verification Testing: Balancing the Rights of Femal Athletes with a Scandal-Free Olympic Games, 19 Hastings Const. L Q, p937-961.
  5. Singh, Baljinder and Singh, Kanwaljeet,(2011) The Hermeneutics of Participation of Transgender Athletes in Sports-Intensifying Third Force, Physical Culture and Sport Studies and Research, 2, p 44-48.

Special thanks to Dr. Suraj Rajan for clarifying my doubts regarding genetic make up and performance of athletes.