Gender Verification At The Olympics – Not So Simple

With the opening of the Olympics in Rio this is a great time to look at just how gender is verified in the athletes, particularly those participating in Women’s sports. This issue of The Lancet medical journal carries the story of how gender is determined – one of the authors, María José Martínez-Patiño was disqualified 30 years ago by the Royal Spanish Athletics Federation from competing in women’s hurdles.

Honest Mistake

Her case shows how athletes can be completely developed as a female (all mammalian fetus are female unless they get doses of the male hormone during development) and not be attempting to cheat, yet might be genetically a male.

Although living as a female and having a Y chromosome, she had a medical condition (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome) which caused the male embryo to develop as female “because of a lack of functional response to testicular androgens.”

Females have the XX chromosome while genetically males have the XY chromosome.

The young Spanish woman refused to stop competing and fought the arbitrary and discriminatory rules. Two years after the disqualification she was determined to be eligible to compete as a woman by the European Athletic Association.

You can have full access to the article by registering with The Lancet (no charge) Volume 388, No. 10044, p541-543, 6 August 2016.

María José Martínez-Patiño.
Gender Verification: María José Martínez-Patiño

History of Testing

Until 1961 a common sense definition of male and female was based on the presence or absence of male genitalia.

The Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), decided at that time to change the basis of testing to actual genetic testing which was only really practical beginning in the 1960’s.

Fair Play

Because of athletes such as Ms. Martinez-Patiño who were actually physically fully developed females and therefore had no muscular advantage over other females, chromosomal testing by the IOC was stopped in 1999.

After new problems were discovered in the testing procedures during the 2000s, the IOC added hormonal testing to detect if there was any advantage for physical females having the XY chromosome either through natural production or by testosterone injections.

Transgender athletes present a new challenge.

Third Gender?

Some countries (including Australia, Bangladesh, Denmark, Nepal, and New Zealand) have passed laws recognizing a third gender, a so-called “sports sex.”

Today the situation is still in flux with more than 30 different self-identified sexes on Facebook.

Along with testing for prohibited drugs, the IOC is certain to face more gender identification problems in the future.