The author is Emeritus Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto.
Even though athletes and human rights activists thought they could abolish it forever, the gender test reappears at every Olympics. However, this practice has disastrous effects for female athletes around the world.
The test was introduced in the 1930s to eliminate “abnormal athletes”.
In the 1960s, when women began to oppose the “parade of nudes” imposed by the test, the official response was not to abolish it, but rather to replace it with hormone analysis.
Feminists, athletes, geneticists, ethics experts, and national governments protested, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the International Amateur Athletic Federation (now known as World Athletics) and the Committee Olympic International (IOC) stopped the test.
The fine print
This decision, however, was short-lived. In the fine print of those sentences, government bodies reserved the right to resume tests on women deemed “suspicious”.
Following the triumph of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, the World Athletics and the IOC have instituted a “hyperandrogenism” test that fixes the amount of natural testosterone at ten nanomoles a woman can possess to remain qualified.
In 2014, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was selected for this test and suspended as she concluded her preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. With the help of academics Payoshni Mitra and Katrina Karkazis, the Sports Authority of India and Toronto lawyers Jim Bunting and Carlos Sayao, Dutee Chand filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), also called the Supreme Court for International Sport. . She won.
The CAS overturned Chand’s suspension and the policy itself, arguing that the scientific evidence presented by the athletics body was not convincing. The IOC canceled the test and both Chand and Semenya competed in the Rio Olympics. In 2016, Semenya once again triumphed in the 800 meters.
However, the optimism that the DAC would prove to be an effective protector of women’s rights proved short-lived. In 2018, World Athletics imposed a revised threshold of five nanomoles of natural testosterone for the five events in which Semenya runs – ranging from 400 meters to 1.6 kilometers – and quickly suspended it. She also appealed to the CAS, alleging that her fundamental rights as a woman had been violated.
Semenya presented ample evidence showing that the test caused many other women to give up sports, robbed them of their livelihoods, exposed them to ridicule and harassment, and, in some extreme cases, forced them to undergo unnecessary and irreversible medical intervention, including surgery. Most of the athletes involved came from southern countries.
She did not win. Although the CAS recognized that the new rules were discriminatory, it said human rights were outside its mandate.
Semenya has since appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, but no decision has been announced.
World Athletics’ decision means Semenya can compete in the 5,000 meters without having to undergo treatment to lower her natural testosterone. Although she is the current South African 5,000m champion, she was unable to meet the Olympic qualification standard. This means that she will not participate in the Tokyo Games.
The persistence of this test, despite the condemnation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the World Medical Association and numerous scientific and academic bodies, painfully exposes the empty rhetoric of human rights. There is no scientific, legal or ethical basis for such tests.
A story of ignorance
As Arne Lundqvist, longtime athletics official and IOC member, admitted to CAS, “There has been a long history of ignorance. “
The way these policies have been developed goes against international standards for independent verification, evidence and consultation with those affected.
The fact that Semenya, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion and one of the most charismatic female athletes in the world, could not defend her 800m champion title simply on the basis of unfounded stereotypes is a blot on the Olympics. of Tokyo.
Allowing irresponsible sports bodies, advised by pre-screened doctors, to exclude some women based on their personal perception of femininity is misleading and unfair. Gender testing should be abolished once and for all and gender self-identification should become the basis for eligibility for women’s events at the Games.
Focus on human rights
How to abolish the femininity test? The obvious solution is to follow Semenya’s example and promote women’s rights under the banner of human rights. Human Rights Watch has suggested that the IOC adopt the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require the establishment of a formal legal mechanism to hear and deal with complaints.
Although the Olympic Charter proclaims that “the practice of sport is a human right”, the IOC has not provided any mechanism to enforce them, arguing that as a private organization it enjoys “the autonomy of sport” from governments and human rights principles. However, more and more studies contest this claim.
The IOC seems to be moving in the right direction, evoking the notion of “responsible autonomy” and calling for the rights of workers and citizens to be protected during the organization of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris and 2028 in Los Angeles.
But it seems reluctant to impose human rights requirements or protections on Tokyo or the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. It continues to restrict athletes’ rights to free speech in the recently announced revisions to Rule 50 governing conduct at the Games.
I wish there was another solution, but to put an end to the gender test once and for all, we must first win the battle for human rights at the Olympics.