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Inclusivity at the Olympics

The gender and sex binary has been accepted as the norm in society for hundreds of years. The struggle to move from traditional conceptions to an inclusive, intersectional world is best represented in competitive sports. Here, to explore intersectionality and gender and sex biases in the Olympics is Perspectoverse’s Ishana Kandhari.


Caster Semenya, a South African athlete, went from winning a gold at the 800m World Championship to being entirely banned from competing by 2019. She did not meet the criteria for being a ‘female athlete’.

After the then-18-year-old’s win in 2009, every aspect of her physical appearance and performance were observed. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) selected her for a sex screening. However, their method of testing has been a great subject of controversy. In 2011, the IAAF set a testosterone limit for female athletes. If an athlete crossed this limit, they were not considered ‘female’ and were ineligible for sporting events. The IAAF argued that testosterone is linked to greater athletic ability. There are several problems with this reasoning.

Testosterone is produced by people of all sexes, although it is typically associated with males. Their bodies naturally produce higher amounts of this hormone than females do. Higher testosterone has been linked to leaner body mass and muscle-building. However, other factors contribute as well, including heart size, VO2 max and nutrition factors. These give athletes an advantage over others. An example of this is record holder, American swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps has a long torso and huge feet, which almost act as ‘flippers’ when he swims. However, his physiological characteristics are not said to give him an unfair advantage over other swimmers. If the testosterone limit can be solely attributed to the IAAF’s wish for ‘fair competition’, other factors need to be taken into consideration as well.

The testosterone limit was 10nmol/L in 2011. In 2014, an Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, was disqualified from the Olympics because her body naturally produced higher levels of testosterone. Chand appealed against the ban. There was no scientific evidence that testosterone could be directly linked to athletic performance. The court agreed with her. They gave the IAAF two years to provide proof of their claim.

In the time that the court of arbitration for sport suspended IAAF’s rule, Semenya won gold at the 800m race at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. In 2018, they released their study and lowered their limit even further, to only 5nmol/L. This was specifically for distances from 400m-1 mile. However, the contents of the report have been constantly questioned by the scientific community.

The only way that hyperandrogenic athletes such as Chand and Semenya could compete would be to take drugs to suppress the testosterone their bodies produce, which can have negative side effects. Semenya refused. “I’d rather just be natural, you know, be who I am.”, she said. The UNHRC has also expressed concerns over this rule being discriminatory.

The IAAF released a statement saying that their rules are ‘discriminatory, but necessary’. They are supposedly ‘preserving the integrity of female athletics’ and ensuring ‘fair and meaningful competition.

The reason why this requirement is even more prejudicial is that there is no equivalent test for male athletes. Hyperandrogenic males are not discriminated against and prevented from participation, only because of their body’s natural capabilities.

Sex testing is not a new practice. It has been practised for almost 60 years. However, the methods of testing have varied and each system reveals a different criteria for ‘femaleness’. In the 1960s, suspicions arose that successful female athletes are men dressed as women. This is why the concept of ‘sex testing’ arose. Ewa Kłobukowska, the winner of the 100m race in 1964, was placed under scrutiny. In 1966, she had to undergo the ‘nude parade’. Her genitalia was inspected to ensure that she was a female. She passed the test. In 1967, chromosomal testing was introduced. Klobukowska was found to be intersex and immediately banned from participation. This method continued until the 21st century when the testosterone limit was announced.

Professors at the University of Otago in New Zealand published a potential resolution to this pressing issue. They suggested an algorithm that takes into consideration each athlete’s physiology, including their height, weight, testosterone levels, endurance, heart size, VO2 max, etc, along with other social factors such as their gender identity and socioeconomic background. This would be an incredibly difficult task. However, large sports organizations such as World Athletics can afford it. We require a transition from traditional conservative ideology, to a fresh, innovative perspective on gender and sex, to find an all-inclusive, viable solution.

Written by Ishana Kandhari

Illustrated by Disha Kariwal


  1. “All The Arguments Why It’s Fair for Trans, Intersex Athletes to Compete | The Swaddle.” Accessed November 18, 2021.

  2. “Caster Semenya Faces Sex-Determination Test After Winning World Track Title - The New York Times.” Accessed November 18, 2021.

  3. Clarey, Christopher. “Gender Test After a Gold-Medal Finish.” The New York Times, August 20, 2009, sec. Sports.

  4. “International Olympic Committee Announces New Framework on Transgender Athletes - CNN.” Accessed November 18, 2021.

  5. Lamon, Severine. “Do Naturally High Testosterone Levels Equal Stronger Female Athletic Performance? Not Necessarily.” The Conversation. Accessed November 18, 2021.

  6. Savulescu, Julian. “Ten Ethical Flaws in the Caster Semenya Decision on Intersex in Sport.” The Conversation. Accessed November 17, 2021.

  7. Schultz, Jaime. “Caster Semenya, Testosterone and the History of Gender Segregation in Sports.”, May 6, 2019.

  8. Vox. The Problem with Sex Testing in Sports, 2019.

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