Two books with historical analysis and cultural critiques further our understanding of sex and gender testing in sport

Sarah Teetzel
Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, University of Manitoba

Lindsay Parks Pieper
Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports
250 pages, paperback, ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2016 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08168-2

Given the astonishing amount of media attention focused on Caster Semenya following her victory in the 800 m at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, few sports fans are unaware that sex testing protocols remain in place in sport today. The numerous blogs, newspaper articles, commentaries, and scholarly papers published over the past eight years, which question whether Semenya should be permitted to run in the women’s events, forced the athlete into the spotlight, not for her athletic prowess, but as the face of the modern sex testing conundrum. Following eleven months of intense media scrutiny, Semenya was cleared to resume competing in women’s events amidst continued suspicions she had treated a hyperandrogenic condition to the satisfaction of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s medical commission. A policy soon followed, Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women’s Competition (IAAF, 2011), which specifies the upper limit of functional testosterone competitors competing in women’s sport may possess. As a result of runner Dutee Chand’s appeal of the IAAF’s policy to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2014, the legitimacy of sex testing, generally, and regulating women athletes’ testosterone levels, specifically, received renewed attention. With the clock ticking on the two-year period the CAS provided the IAAF to bring forward evidence that any advantages hyperandrogenic female athletes possess are a direct result of their testosterone levels, the issue of sex testing – if it should be done, and if so how it can be done fairly – remains as pressing as ever.  If the IAAF fails to submit new and convincing evidence to the CAS by 24 July 2017, the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism policy “shall be declared void” (CAS, 2015).

Two recent publications, Lindsay Parks Pieper’s manuscript, Sex Testing, and Sandy Montañola and Aurélie Olivesi’s edited collection, Gender Testing in Sport, are thus timely and topical additions to the scholarship addressing sex/gender testing in sport. Both sources analyze the challenges of a sport system that divides competitors into male and female categories, and seeks an objective or fair method of verifying that each athlete competes in the ‘correct’ category. Parks does so through a historical analysis of how the current sex testing rules came to be, whereas Montañola and Olivesi have assembled a roster of predominantly media studies and gender scholars to analyze how the media and sports organizations framed and positioned Semenya’s gender as problematic.

While Montañola and Olivesi’s anthology focuses directly on media narratives of Caster Semenya, Pieper’s book does not mention the athlete until the final few pages of the epilogue. Focusing on the history and significance of sex testing from the 1930s-2000s, Pieper clarifies many inaccuracies in the historical record, including the often-cited belief that German high jumper Dora Ratjen was forced by Nazi officials to masquerade as a woman. In addition, Pieper demonstrates that Canadian sportswriter Alexandrine Gibb, often characterized as an influential feminist writer, called for “proper physical examination” of female athletes back in 1934 in her influential Toronto Daily Star column. Gibb’s request for sex testing came two years prior to the controversial Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh 100 m showdown at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where most histories of sex testing in sport begin.  Additional examples of purported sex transgressions in athletics expand the repository of frequently cited examples.

For readers unfamiliar with the body of literature on the origins of sex testing and drug testing in sport, several of the stories recounted by Pieper describing what women athletes faced will seem shocking, even farfetched and preposterous.

Pieper notes, “Some scholars have analyzed sex/gender testing as a creation of the Cold War, while others have explored the influence of the IOC on the reaffirmation of gender norms, but a complete historical evaluation of the policy remains unwritten” (p. 8). Heavily influenced by Rob Beamish and Ian Ritchie’s work investigating the Cold War origins and growth of doping and sex testing policy, Pieper seeks to “more fully interrogate sex/gender testing in sport and to extend the conversation both chronologically and topically” (p. 8). She notes in the introductory chapter, “To move the topic beyond the Cold War, this book examines the sexed, gendered, racial, and geopolitical concerns sport authorities maintained when implementing testing” (p. 8). These goals are accomplished in Sex Testing in Sport; however, in doing so, Pieper replicates earlier, foundational work on the origins of drug testing and sex testing by M. Ann Hall, Helen Lenskyj, Tara Magdalinski, Berit Skirstad, Angela J. Schneider, and Laura Wackwitz. Surprisingly, these scholars’ contributions are neither acknowledged nor cited. The same critique holds for the author’s recounting of the IOC’s medical commission and doping committee’s work and the impact of Cold War politics on sport policy, particularly in athletics. While Pieper uses archival sources to present a thorough and convincing narrative, recent scholarship in this area (i.e. by Kathryn Henne, Toby Rider, John Gleaves and Matthew Llewellyn) is absent from Pieper’s discussion and bibliography.

As a historical examination of the IOC and IAAF’s involvement in sex testing women athletes, Pieper’s efforts are insightful and exhaustive. The chronological discussion of how and why sex testing was conducted at each summer and winter Olympics provides new details, anecdotes, and insights into how both athletes’ and organizers’ thinking about the appropriate methods and moral acceptability of sex testing progressed each quadrennial.  Pieper systematically addresses each winter and summer Games, highlighting the personalities tasked with making decisions about sex verification protocols, and analyzing their motivations for making the decisions they did. In doing so, Pieper is charitable to the struggles for fairness that some IOC and IAAF members faced and avoids vilifying key figures.

Pieper concludes, “it was within track and field where anxieties surfaced and tests resulted,” and “the prestige of track and field, combined with its masculine undertones, allowed the sport to serve as the first in which questions of sex/gender appeared (33). However, additional analysis of what other sports federations were doing remains an underexplored area of the history of sex testing in sport. Scant work has been published addressing why other federations offering women’s events in the 1930s, such as FINA (swimming) or FIE (fencing), did not take the same path that the IAAF initiated. Later, Pieper reports that by 1980 the international federations for not only athletics (IAAF), but basketball (FIBA), volleyball (FIVB), handball (IHF) and luge (FIL) had orchestrated their own independent sex verification protocols outside of the Olympics. Details on what these additional federations required, as well as their justifications for doing so, remain to be determined.

For readers unfamiliar with the body of literature on the origins of sex testing and drug testing in sport, several of the stories recounted by Pieper describing what women athletes faced will seem shocking, even farfetched and preposterous. However, every claim is documented with evidence, and the only nudge toward sensationalising these events comes in featuring an image of Caster Semenya crossing the finish line in Berlin in 2009 to win the women’s 800 m — well ahead of the rest of the heat, with a single finger raised in victory — on the front cover, despite not mentioning Semenya at all until the final eight pages of the book’s epilogue. While Pieper makes an effort to connect her historical analysis to present day issues plaguing women’s sport (most obviously the IOC’s so-called “hyperandrogenism” and “Stockholm” policies that govern trans athletes’ and athletes with disorders of sex development’s participation in Olympic competition) the focus of the book is on events transpiring between the 1930s and 2000s.

Sandy Montañola & Aurélie Olivesi (red)
Gender Testing in Sport: Ethics, cases and controversies
196 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-85291-4

The edited collection, Gender Testing in Sport, features nine essays, an introduction, and an epilogue that analyze what editors Montañola and Olivesi dub “the Caster Semenya Case.” Each essay directly or indirectly dissects the events transpiring after Semenya won the women’s 800 m at the 2009 world championships. From Montañola and Olivesi’s introduction, readers learn that these essays were presented at an international workshop in France, and follow their 2014 publication with Béatrice Damian-Gaillard, L’assignation de genre dans les medias (quite possibly the first book published on sex testing in sport). The translators who translated the essays from French to English did an admirable job, and the anthology serves to introduce new voices, ideas and analyses to English speaking audiences.

Via a multidisciplinary approach including legal, historical, and predominantly sociocultural analyses of the “Caster Semenya Case,” the collection addresses  how media coverage of Semenya sheds light on understandings of gender, race, and postcolonialism. While the majority of chapters address the aftermath of the 2009 race and subsequent IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism, the fourth chapter, by Laurence Brunet and Muriel Salle, strays from this format, analyzing the history and legality of methods of distinguishing women and men over the past several centuries. Brunet and Salle offer little to no connection to the sex testing procedures Semenya faced, but provide a fascinating historical examination of how sex was declared across geographical areas and centuries. It would be interesting to read what these experts in gender and law think should happen next.

The lack of prescriptive analysis, and recommendations for what the sport world ought to do about sex testing, extends beyond Brunet and Salle’s chapter to the majority of the book. Surprisingly, given the emphasis on ethics in the book’s title, and its publication in Routledge’s Ethics and Sport series, few essays delve into any type of ethical analysis or include prescriptive ideas, recommendations, or arguments regarding how high-performance sport ought to move forward in including transgender, intersex, hyperandrogenic, non-binary, and gender variant athletes. An exception is Silvia Camporesi and Paulo Maugeri’s chapter on unfair advantages, which raises the issue of why it matters morally how we conceptualize fairness, unfairness, and advantages.

The collection as a whole emphasizes the construction, cultural significance, and meaning of gender more than the ethics of gender testing in sport, but it offers fresh, convincing, and astute perspectives on gender testing. Two chapters, by Elaine Salo and John Sloop, address Semenya’s use of silence in response to the intense public scrutiny she faced and continued to receive. Both chapters are theoretically strong, engaging, and bring new perspectives to the body of literature addressing sex/gender testing in sport.

Both new sources on sex/gender testing in sport have many merits. Indeed, Pieper’s book was recently awarded a runner-up for the best sport history monograph published in 2016 at the North American Society for Sport History annual convention. Readers wanting to understand the implications of the CAS’s upcoming decision on the legitimacy of the IAAF hyperandrogenism policy will benefit from the historical analysis and cultural critiques contained in both books. Sports fans and scholars alike would benefit from reading both new sources as well.

Copyright © Sarah Teetzel 2017


Beamish, R., & Ritchie, I. (2006). Fastest, highest, strongest: A critique of high-performance sport. New York: Routledge.
CAS. (2015). Dutee Chand v. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
Damian-Gaillard, B., Montañola, S., & Olivesi, A. (2014). L’assignation de genre dans les medias. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
Gleaves, J., & Llewellyn, M. (2014). Sport, drugs, and amateurism: Tracing the real cultural origins of anti-doping rules in international sport. International Journal for the History of Sport, 31(8), 839-853.
Hall, M. A. (1996). Feminism and sporting bodies. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Henne, K. (2015). Testing for athlete citizenship: Regulating doping and sex in sport. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
IAAF. (2011). Regulations governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition.
Lenskyj, H.  (1986). Out of bounds: Women, sport, and sexuality. Toronto: Women’s Press.
Magdalinski, T. (2009) Sport, technology and the body: The nature of performance. London: Routledge.
Rider, T. C. (2011). The Olympic Games and the secret Cold War: The U.S. government and the propaganda campaign against communist sport, 1950-1960. PhD dissertation. University of Western Ontario.
Ritchie, I. (2003). Sex tested, gender verified: Controlling female sexuality in the age of containment. Sport History Review, 23(1), 80-98.
Schneider, A. J. (2000). On the definition of ‘woman’ in the context of sport. In Tamburrini, C. & Tännsjö, T. (eds.) Values in sport: Elitism, nationalism, gender equality and the scientific manufacture of winners, 123-138. London: Taylor and Francis Group.
Skirstad, B. (2000). Gender verification in competitive sport: Turning from research to action. In Tamburrini, C. & Tännsjö, T. (eds.) Values in sport: Elitism, nationalism, gender equality and the scientific manufacture of winners, 116-122. London: Taylor and Francis Group.
Wackwitz, L. A. (2003). Verifying the myth: Olympic sex testing and the category “woman.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 26(6), 553-560.


Table of Content, Gender Testing in Sport

  1. From Apartheid to Segregation in Sports: the transgressive body of Caster Mokgadi Semenya (Philippe Liotard)
  2. Gender Verifications vs. Anti-Doping Policies: sexed controls (Anaïs Bohuon & Eva Rodriguez)
  3. Unfair Advantage and the Myth of the Level Playing Field in IAAF and IOC Policies on Hyperandrogenism: when is it fair to be a woman? (Sylvia Camporesi & Paolo Maugeri)
  4. Categorizing and Attributing the Sex of Individuals: history of the science, law and ethics(Laurence Brunet & Muriel Salle)
  5. Caster Semenya and the Intersex Hypothesis: on gender as the visual evidence of sex (Fabien Rose)
  6. From the Implicit to Aporia: the specificities of the Caster Semenya case as a “discursive moment” (Aurélie Olivesi)
  7. From Sports to Science, Rhetorical and Power Issues in the Media Coverage of Caster Semenya (Sandy Montañola)
  8. “Caster Semenya – the ncients would have called her god.” The International Re-Imagining and Remaking of Sex and the Art of Silence (Elaine Salo)
  9. Gender, Silence, and a Queer New World: Caster Semenya and unfixed ambiguity (John M. Sloop)
  10. Afterword (Silvia Camporesi)
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