Gender Verification and Sport

The issue of gender in sport

One of the key requirements for sporting competition is that the level playing field is maintained. This means that in order for competition to be fair the athletes must be on the same level otherwise the whole essence of sporting competition is lost.

Accordingly such things as doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs are banned from sport as they cause the playing field to be uneven.

One of the key aspects to attain the level playing field in sporting competition is to ensure that men compete against men and women compete against women. Due to the genetic differences between men and women in would be unfair for a man to compete against a woman.

Competitive Advantage and Genetic Differences

It is clear that due to the genetic differences between men and women they cannot compete against each other in a level playing field, but there is also a school of thought that some athletes have genetic differences which also make the playing field uneven.

Every individual and each individual athlete is genetically different and most athletes who compete at an elite level have already exploited some genetic advantage to be in that position and have built upon that through years of training.

An example of this is high natural levels of certain hormones within the body in long distance runners and cross country skiers.

It is therefore, extremely difficult to state what genetic differences give a competitive advantage, however, this is something which sport has tried to achieve with the area of most concern what is termed gender ambiguities.

Gender ambiguities

What is meant by gender ambiguities?

Most medical professions and sports governing body’s term gender ambiguities as disorders of sex development. In relation to sport the concern is with women suffering with gender ambiguities which may improve their performance giving them an unfair advantage.

The most common gender ambiguities are as follows:

  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)
  • Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS)

CAH is a condition whereby there are increased levels of hormones such as testosterone causing increased body hair and a deeper voice that usual although sufferers will still be classed as female.


This is a much less common disorder whereby a foetus is genetically male but insensitive to certain hormones so is born female. In cases of AIS such individuals do not have a uterus and cannot conceive or menstruate.

Gender Verification and Sport

What is the current position in relation to gender verification and sport?

  • Gender verification testing first became mandatory in relation to athletics in 1966 and consisted of a physical examination by doctors.
  • This was seen to be inhuman and degrading treatment towards the athletes and so was replaced in 1968 by a mouth swab. Competitors with an XX result would be treated as a woman and competitors with an XY result would be treated as a man. This type of testing, however, led to significant problems as the test became outdated.
  • In 1991 another test called a PCR test was introduced – it was a much more sophisticated and reliable test but still through up some anomalies.
  • In 2000 gender verification testing ceased to be mandatory and now is only conducted at the instruction of a medical director of an international sporting event if a complaint has been made or a suspicion has arisen.  This has not changed since 2000 and remains the current position.

Is sport justified in the application of gender verification?

Many people that verification of an individual’s gender is viewed as inhuman and degrading treatment and should fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998.

However, it is likely that the Human Rights Act will not apply to gender verification in the sporting context as it is felt to be justified in order to maintain the level playing field which is integral for all sports.

Have there been any recent developments in the field of gender verification?

Following recent controversies in the field of athletics a gender symposium was held in January 2010 involving the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – the World Governing Body of Athletics.

During this symposium the following recommendations were made:

  • That medical centres of excellence specialising in Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) be set up around the world
  • That athletes have period pre-participation health exams
  • That athletes with a gender ambiguity be diagnosed and recommended treatment as quickly as possible
  • That rules of eligibility for competition for such athletes be established

Currently, the IOC have not issued any guidelines on the criteria that will be used to establish female gender and all that they have made clear is that eligibility of such athletes will be considered on a case by case basis.

Accordingly it is unclear as to whether the new proposals will create a clear and transparent policy on how gender verification will be dealt with by sport.