A Lab Is Set to Test the Gender of Some
By KATIE THOMAS
Published: July 30, 2008
By the time they arrive inBeijing, most athletes have resigned themselves to the possibility of undergoing a battery of tests for
banned substances, like anabolic steroids and certain cough medicines.
But some female athletes may find they are asked to submit to an entirely different examination — one that will test
whether they are, in fact, women.
Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have set up a sex-determination laboratory to evaluate “suspect” female athletes, the official Chinese news agency
Xinhua reported Sunday. The lab is similar to ones set up at previous Olympics in Sydney and Athens, and will draw on the resources of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital to evaluate an athlete’s external appearance, hormones and genes.
Some medical ethicists have said the practice is too intrusive. “Real people are going to be hurt by this,” said Alice Dreger, an associate professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University.
Olympic athletes who have spent their whole life waiting for this moment.”
Although only athletes whose gender has been questioned will be tested inBeijing, the lab is a relic of an earlier
Olympic era, when every female athlete was required to submit to a sex-verification test before competing in the Games. The tests emerged in the 1960s, when theSoviet Unionand other Communist countries were suspected of entering male athletes in women’s
events to gain an edge.
At first, women were asked to parade nude before a panel of doctors to verify their sex. At the 1968 Olympics inMexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.
The tests never unmasked a man posing as a woman, but they did turn up several athletes who were born with genetic defects that made them appear — according to lab results, at least — to be men. In 1967,
the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was barred from the sport because she failed the chromosomal test, even though she had passed the nude test a year earlier. In the 1980s, the Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez Patino was disqualified because
the test revealed, to her surprise, that she was born with a Y chromosome. Her eligibility was reinstated in 1988.
The practice came under increasing criticism in the 1990s by doctors, scientists
and athletes who argued that the tests were not just invasive, but were also bad science. During the 1996 Atlanta Games, eight athletes failed the test, but all were later cleared of suspicion because it was determined that they had a birth defect that did
not give them an unfair advantage.
“It was an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice,” said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission and one of the most outspoken critics of
In 1999, Ljungqvist helped abolish the blanket testing of women, but international competitions have continued to rely on sex-verification tests in isolated instances.
“We must be ready to take on such cases should they arise,” Ljungqvist said. “Sometimes, fingers are pointed at particular female athletes, and in order to protect them, we have to be able to investigate
it and clarify.”
Two years ago, middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan of India was stripped of her silver medal at the Asian Games after failing a verification test. Ljungqvist said an
official who observed Soundarajan during the mandatory urine test for doping questioned her sex, and she later refused to submit to a more thorough exam.
Although the verification test has changed
to adapt to new scientific understandings about gender — athletes are now evaluated by an endocrinologist, gynecologist, a geneticist and a psychologist — critics say the test is based on the false idea that someone’s sex is a cut-and-dried
“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine.
Because of a range of genetic conditions, people who look like women may have a Y chromosome, while people who look like men may not, she said. Many times, the people do not learn of the defects until they reach adulthood.
“It gets really complicated very quickly,” McGinn said.
Despite decades of rigorous testing of women athletes, only one known case of gender cheating exists in the history of the modern
Olympics — and it was not uncovered by a sex-determination test.
In 1936, a German athlete named Dora Ratjen finished fourth in the women’s high jump. Twenty years later, Ratjen disclosed
that he was in fact Hermann Ratjen, and that the Nazis had forced him to compete as a woman.