Sex testing. It goes on in sports all the time. But it only makes headlines during the Olympics, when a giant for-profit sports behemoth famous for corruption and bribery interrupts its tireless quest to sell every piece of itself to corporations in order to take a fierce stand against possibly unethical chromosomes.
Overall, women’s sports have a long, often dismal history with the Olympics. Below we draw from Press books to uncover five cases of injustice, absurdity, and controversy unleashed by sex testing, a policy implemented in 1967 by the International Olympic Committee and clung to by them with all their might despite widespread disapproval and harm.
1. Maria Jose Martinez Patino. Was subject to a lifetime ban from national competition from the Spanish athletic federation after testing revealed an XY chromosome configuration in 1986. Further investigation revealed that a genetic mutation left Martinez Patino unable to process testosterone, so that despite the presence of a Y chromosome, she had developed external female genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. After further review the IOC committee reinstated her, but only after she had suffered two years of inactivity, the withdrawal of her national scholarship and athletic residence, the forced dismissal of her coach, and a painful period of shame and embarrassment in which friends and her boyfriend deserted her. Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong.
2. The 1972 “Sex Control” pamphlet. First, any competitor registered as “being female” was required to take a sex control examination prior to participation. The pamphlet dictated that all tests must occur in the prsence of at least one member of the medical commission, which at the time was comprised of eight men and one woman. Second, any athlete who had previously undergone a check and possessed a “sex control certificate” . . . was exempted. Third, the samples derived from either buccal mucous membranes or hair roots were screened for X chromosomes and Y chromosomes. Finally, the medical commission mandated a silent disqualification should a sample prove irregular. Lindsay Parks Pieper, Sex Testing.
3. Kirsten Wengler’s false positive. Many experts disliked the Y chromatin test due to the likelihood of false positive, of which some athletes inevitably fell victim, including Wengler. After undergoing the exam, the US swimmer lined up to receive her femininity certificate; however, she was not issued documentation. . . . “Initially I thought it was a joke. Then she was told to return to the laboratory. The retest confirmed the presence of a Y chromatin. “I was crying and really freaked out,” Wengler explained. “I thought I would never be able to have children and that something was wrong with me.” After much debate, she was allowed to compete in the University Games. Pieper, Sex Testing.
4. Who’s down with IOC? Nobody. Stronger pressure began to mount in the 1990s. Doctors called sex testing “morally destitute” and a “futile exercise causing embarrassment, anguish and expense.” Athletic and genetic groups in Canada and Australia condemned the tests. A prominent Spanish geneticist refused to participate in sex testing during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The Norwegian medical community declined to assist the IOC with the exams at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, and in 1996 Norway’s parliament ruled gender verification illegal. By then, nearly all major medical societies in the United States had passed resolutions that called for the end to sex testing, although the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games agreed to the IOC contract that stipulated a requirement for on-site screening and the issuing of gender-verification cards. Jaime Schultz, Qualifying Times.
5. Santhi Soundarajan. The day after she earned silver, Soundarajan, a world-class athlete who had previously garnered several first- and second-place finishes in international events, was asked to submit to a gender verification test. Although the IAAF and the IOC had abolished compulsory screening in the 1990s, sport authorities still maintained the right to require its competitors to undergo an exam at any time. Therefore, four IAAF doctors, none of whom spoke Tamil, Soundarajan’s native language, extracted blood and scrutinized her body. The silver medalist was told neither the purpose nor the outcome of the thirty-minute examination. It was days later, back in India, that Soundarajan learned from the evening news that she had “failed” the test. “That was the end of my sports life,” she recalled. The IAAF immediately stripped Soundarajan of her medal and barred her from future competitions. Pieper, Sex Testing.