Lindsay Parks Pieper is an assistant professor of sport management at Lynchburg College. She answered some questions about her book Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports.
Q: Given the colorful history of cheating in the Olympic Games, vigilance from IOC officials is perhaps understandable. But what factors led sex testing to change from finding men masquerading as women to judging whether biological women were “real” women?
Lindsay Parks Pieper: The shift in sex testing paralleled the shift in the International Olympic Committee’s gender beliefs. At first, the IOC—and most sport practitioners—assumed women could not compete in sport. Prevailing ideologies held that physical endeavors were too strenuous for the frail female physique. Medical and sport officials alike framed running, jumping, and throwing as activities reserved explicitly for men. Thus when female Olympians eventually demonstrated competency in these areas, the IOC’s knee-jerk reaction was that these successful athletes could not actually be women. Only men posing as women could run that fast, jump that high, or throw that far, officials reasoned. The IOC therefore conducted its first, sporadic physical exams on the female participants who excelled in “masculine” competitions.
Yet, as female athletes increasingly demonstrated prowess in elite sport, and the IOC failed to uncover a single instance of a male imposter, the ideology changed. From male masqueraders the focus turned to masculine women. The IOC worried that mannish female athletes unfairly defeated “real” women, those who appeared more conventionally feminine. Changing course, the IOC instead suggested that gender verification measures detected unfair biological assets and weeded out unfairly advantaged (i.e. masculine) competitors.
Q: How did Cold War tensions influence Western officials, journalists, and others to see women from the Eastern Bloc in biased ways? Did those tensions create a set of biases around Western women in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other communist countries?
Pieper: During the Cold War, Eastern and Western countries celebrated contrasting gender norms, which extended into sport. For example, the Soviet Union expected women to labor in the same capacity as men; in turn, the nation also promoted egalitarian sport training and embraced muscular female athletes. The United States, on the other hand, upheld a “June Cleaver” ideal that exalted domesticity and femininity. U.S. women’s sport was moderated to match this model. Both the Soviet Union and the United States viewed the other country’s gender system as harmful and unnatural to women.
As a result, Western officials, journalists, and the larger population disliked both the successes and the appearances of the Soviet women. Newspaper articles criticized the size, muscularity, and power of the Eastern Bloc women. Comparisons to boxers and American football players were commonplace. Eastern accounts likewise disparaged the treatment of Western women. Soviet reports painted American housewives as unhappily anchored in the kitchen and highlighted the United States’ inability to promote equal pay or promote the Equal Rights Amendment.
Q: Sex testing obviously forced women into embarrassing, vulnerable situations. Did women ever protest what might be seen as a violation of their human rights?
Pieper: Not as often as one might think. Although several athletes recounted the humiliating nature of the “nude parade”—the visual inspection of the 1960s—most women supported testing. Western competitors, in particular, backed sex control for three reasons. First, they internalized the IOC’s mantra that testing eliminated male impostors and ensured a level playing field. Two, most did not recognize the complexity of the human body nor realize the flawed nature of the chromatin control. Finally, and most significantly to the athletes, they viewed sex testing as a chance to prove their womanhood. These competitors experienced criticism for their athleticism; testing removed doubt.
That said, once the medical community highlighted the inadequacies of sex testing, several female athletes started to protest the policy. In conjunction with the women’s liberation movement, for example, some questioned why male participants did not have to undergo a parallel procedure. It was actually the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission that finally convinced the Executive Board to abandon the practice in 1999.
Q: Beginning in the late 1970s on, many authorities—including former Olympians—stepped forward to criticize the tests. What specific events, if any, galvanized the anti-testing forces?
Pieper: The 1985 World University Games was a turning point. During this event, María José Martínez Patiño forgot her “femininity certificate,” a document given to women who underwent testing. She had previously passed the exam; yet, this time around, she “failed.” Rather than quietly retire from sport as her team doctor recommended, Patiño continued to compete and ran hurdles at the 1986 Spanish National Games. She immediately faced intense backlash. Spanish sport authorities revoked her athletic scholarship, kicked her out of the athletic residence, and removed her medals. What Patiño experienced was cruel and horrific, but her case caught the attention of the anti-testing group. Finish geneticist Albert de la Chapelle contacted the Spanish hurdler and she became the face of the policy’s flaws. For the first time, those opposed to testing had an athlete who came forward and could show the negative effects of the unsound system.
Q: How did Olympic officials resist the growing evidence that the tests were flawed or even unscientific?
Pieper: Initially, the composition of the IOC Medical Commission allowed it to avoid most questions. The IOC assembled the group to combat doping, with sex testing added as a secondary concern. Most members therefore had expertise for the former issue and not the latter. Moreover, Prince Alexandre de Mérode, the head of the medical commission from 1967 to 2002, was trained in philosophy and law. He was the most steadfast in championing the necessity of sex testing and disregarded the opposition. When evidence of the unscientific nature of the test proved too great to ignore, the medical commission responded to the criticisms by pointing out the uniqueness of sport. De Mérode repeatedly suggested that scientists did not understand the realities or nuances of elite competition. He further argued that sex testing did not aim to delineate sex but simply strove to ensure a level playing field.