Intersexism in Sports: A Human Rights Issue

by Matt Guilbeault

Ever since 1934, when the first intersexual was discovered thirty eight years after the establishment of the modern Olympic Games, the global sports world grew concerned over males masquerading as females in sporting competitions. This became the foremost of concerns in the 1960's, after many other incidents came to light. Thereafter, in 1968 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) required all individuals in sporting events, to provide evidence of their femininity (de la Chapelle, 1986). Since then the American College of Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have denounced sex testing, in all sports, as intersexuals were evidently being discriminated against (Cahn, 1994). However controversy still prevails to this day, and little inclusion of intersexuals under any jurisdiction has been provided.


Historical Background

The sensationalist portrait of males competing in women's competitions, had to be challenged, and the global sports world was going to do anything they could to stop it. After all, success in international sports was being used to foster and promote national prestige and even political systems. Yet once the medical specialists were brought in to provide gender verification, few recognized that intersexuals were being discriminated against. Yet the only given explanation was that they had abnormal genitalia and/or sex chromosomes, which as shall be explained, is not sufficient. Meanwhile, the officials and media focused intensely on other women, accusing them of being male. Some competitive women dropped out of sports as soon as gender verification was brought in, which arouse suspicion. Many more felt the process was humiliating, and over all, women were being seriously held back from advancing in athletics, being reinforced to be feminine, first and foremost. Intersexuals soon became marginalized by officials, the media, and by medical officials who did little more than to reinforce the reigning cultural imperatives. The plight against masculinity in female space, became at odds with the many very subtle differences males and females so often portray, while infact, nothing remained exclusive.

Mildrid Ella Didrikson: Babe

The earliest account began with athletes like Mildrid Ella Didrikson ("Babe"), who won two golds and a silver medal in the 1932, Los Angeles Olympics. Reporters kept trying to "restore femininity to the successful athlete," from the achievements of Didrikson, who appeared very masculine, becoming Woman Athlete of the Half Century. Infact it was not until she married, started wearing dresses, and took up the more respectable game of professional golf, that suspicion of her being a male finally ended (Cahn, 1994). She was after all, a tomboy nicknamed after Babe Ruth, since in her earliest days, she could out-perform other boys in baseball, with her "all too numerous" home-runs. Overall, she seemed to dominate most female athletes, in just about every athletic event, including basketball, baseball, and those in track and field.

Zdenka Koubkowa

During Didrikson's earliest known days, Zdenka Koubkowa of Czechoslovakia won the women's 800 meter race in London,(Ryan, 1976), breaking the world record in 1934. She was later found to have ambiguous genitalia, and was diagnosed with "pseudohermaphroditismus masculinus," based on a subjective evaluation of her body (Tachezy, 1969). This clinical evaluation took place about 30 years after her birth in 1913. She was raised as a girl, which was how she competed. But at the time of her consultation, she requested to start living her life as a man.

Tachezy's argued that since she appeared masculine phenotypically, she had no right to compete in the Olympic Games. He went on further by stating that all pseudohermaphrodite's records in women's sports should never be acknowledged, as this might provide for them certain advantages. This cultural imperative to subjectively evalute some qualitative dichotomy of what may and may not be female, asserts many questions. For had this occured today with another female, after many a physician's attempt to prove that she might be male, it is left to ask, what makes her essentially female in sporting competitions? This is especially true in elite female athleticism, where masculine phenotypes consistently foster domination in particular competitions. Hence generalizing femininity subjectively increasingly becomes futile. Hence Tachezy's arguement does not stand the test of time, although Koubkowa has forever lost her/his Olympic title.

Even more disturbing is Tachezy's blatent action in providing a photograph of Koubkowa's genitalia, where people from around the world, could glance at a well known public figure. Today libraries secure this act of great indecensy, next to Koubkowa's title, and change of gender. Yet not one medical practitioner has ever published negatively on the matter, left to condemn such a timeless spectacle.

Stella Walsh

In the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Helen Stephens of the United States was accused of being a male, after beating Stella Walsh (Stanisllawa Walasiewicz) of Poland by 1.8m, in the 100m sprint. Stephens won the gold medal, but was forced to prove her gender, even though she had been propositioned by Adolf Hitler (Donohoe et al, 1986). She passed inspection, but surprisingly, it was Stella Walsh, who was later uncovered to be a male, after being shot dead as an innocent bystander in a robery in Cleveland, 60 years later. The autopsy report unambiguously declared her to be a male, via genital inspection.

She was the 100m sprint champion from the previous 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, becoming the first women to break the 12 second barrier, with her "long man-like strides," according to one Canadian official. Walsh also had one of the longest and most prestigious track careers of any athlete, setting 11 world records, 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles, and two Olympic gold medals, in such sports like the 100 m & 200 m sprints, the pentathlon, and finally, discus and shotput (Wallechinsky, 1991). Since that time, no other athlete has been documented as "male," competing as a female in the Olympics.

Unmarked by all history books, is the life of Stella Walsh as a transgendered male or potential intersexual, who may or may not have taken exogenous estrogenic steroids since the birth of transsexualism in the 1920's. Speculation can only guess whether or not she was the first Renee Richard's (who shall be mentioned shortly), or just some very unlikely male living her "whole life" to just dominate women's sports, in honour of Poland.

However that does not seem to be the case, as she apparently lucked out on representing Poland with her dual citizenship in America. For she was first chosen to represent America, but could not afford to compete for them, due to the depression after World War I. But 24 hours prior to the 1936 race in Berlin, the Polish consulate in New York hired her, and sent her off to Berlin to represent her parent's country (Wallechinsky, 1991).

Dora Ratjen

In 1936 Dora Ratjen competed in the Berlin Olympic Games. Two years later, she was discovered to have ambiguious genitalia at the European championships in Vienna, where she became high jump champion, with a height of 1.7m, becoming the world record holder at that time. Soon after she was said to "have no right to participate in women's competitions" by the German Athletic Federation. Sometime after World War II, Dora was found to have changed her first name to Hermann, when she started living life her life as a man. Hermann later admited that he had only previously lived his life as a woman for a period of 3 years (Donohoe, 1994). Even more ancedotal, in 1957, he stated that the Nazi party forced him to "disguise his gender" identity (Cahn, 1994), among his intersexism which was kept secret.

Cahn et al states that, "since that time official testing has not uncovered a single instance of a male athlete attempting to pass as a female (1994, 263)." I, however, reject this notion because Hermann was not essentially a biological male, but an intersexual. Secondly I reject this notion, on the assumption that Hermann most likely identified with him or herself as a intersexual. For his name makes several suggestions: "Her"-mann, for the pronoun "her;" Her- "man"-n, for the noun "man," which in combination with the former indicates ambiguity; and finally "Herm"-man, for "hermaphrodite." Rather a medical examination is required to have him graded as an intersexual, which is confidential information; and then equixotic postulates have to manufactured, among many other masculine female athletes, to declare him a male athlete in all respects.

Clair Bresolles & Lean Caula

Two French athletes, Claire Bresolles and Lean Caula, participated in the 1946 track and field European Championships, becoming silver medalists in a relay race. Aside from that, all that is known of them today, is that sometime after they both underwent genital surgery to help them function as men, which obviously has nothing to do with their history of competing in women's athletics. Be that as it may, it was reported that one of them became a father (Ryan, 1976; Donohoe et al, 1986) "somehow."

Sin Kim Dam

Sin Kim Dam (Dan Shin-guem) unofficially broke the women's world record in the 400 and 800 meter sprint for North Korea. Later she was not allowed to compete in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, simply because someone claimed to be her father, claiming that she was a long lost son from the Korean War. This lead to a dispute between the International Olympic Commitee (I.O.C.) and the Korean government (Wallechinsky, 1991; Ryan, 1976), which was not resolved. Dam did not compete, and did not undergo any clinical evaluation. Therefore fact can only entertain the possibility.

The Press Sisters

Soon after, several woman disappeared from the sporting scene when sex testing was brought in by 1966. Whether they chose to retire at a bad time, or because they were males or intersexuals, can only be speculated. Among these women were Tamara Press, Olympic discuss thrower and shot putter, and her sister Irena Press, Olympic hurdler and pentathlete, both from the Soviet Union. These women were accussed of by the media to be males, which created quite a stir during the Cold War. Tamara held the shot-put record from 1959-1965, and won four Olympic medals (Turnbull, 1988).

Balas, Aschelkanova, and Itkina

Romanian world champion high jumper Iolanda Balas, and two more Russians, Tatyana Aschelkanova, high jumper, and Maria Itkina, 400m world record holder, were also accused of as being male during the Cold War, never having their genders varified by officials, due to retirement. Similarly they were also accused of being on anabolic steroids, because drug testing had not been brought in at that time either (Donohoe et al, 1986). Be that as it may, today women are much stronger athletes, all being monitored with drug tests and gender verification procedures.

Erika Schineggar

Another incident occured with Erika Schineggar of the Australian National Ski Team, who won the 1966 downhill ski title. The following year when sex testing was brought in, the officials banned her from competition, due to her intersexism. Later she chose to compete in cycling and skiing as a male, while undergoing four genital surgeries (Ryan, 1976). She changed her name to Eric, got married, and became a father (Donohoe et al, 1986), which unlikely had anything to do with fertility.

Eva Klobukowska

Polish sprinter Eva Klobukowska became the first public victim of the sex chromatin test in 1967, at Kiev, USSR, at the European Cup; even after several British Ahtletes at that time, failed the test and were quietly counselled about their new found abnormalities. This occured a year after passing the "old-style gynecological examination" in 1966, when she competed at the European Cup Championships in Budapest. She was found to have an XXY karyotype (Turnbull, 1988): "one chromosome too many to be declared a woman for the purposes of athletic competition" (Donohoe et al, 1986). After a gynecological examination, which proved to be normal, she was immediately banned from competition, and publically humiliated all over the world, because of her extra chromosome (Ryan, 1976). A few years after Miss Klobukowska became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby (Sherrow, 1996).

Renee Richards

Most people have heard of the transsexual tennis star, Renee Richards of 1976. After hormonal replacement therapy, and genital surgery, she legally became a female, and started competing in women's tennis. The US Tennis Association (USTA) did not approve of her success and refused to first acknowledge her winnings. But after the new York State Supreme Court issued an injunction that said that there was, "overwhelming medical evidence that Dr. Richards is now a female," they had to let her compete in the main draw. In pairs, she gamed and lost. Later without much attention by the media, she competed in the Women's Tennis Association Pro Championships, in Penasacola, Florida, among many other competitions (Caldwell, 1977). The USTA never appealed the decision, and nobody sued because they thought their rights were being infringed upon (Ryan, 1976). Her case remains exceptional.

Bev Francis

One of the strongest women in the world, with squat and deadlift records of over 440 lbs, Bev Francis has a chest circumference of over 1.2 metres. She has passed all testing for anabolic steroids, "but many people are still suspicious of her physique" (Donohoe et al, 1986). Yet today such dauntingly challenging figures are now becoming commonplace.

Jarmilia Kratochvilova

Then there is Jarmilia Kratochvilova, a Czechosolovakian middle-distance runner who aroused great controversy. Many have accused her of taking anabolic steroids, and of being male. She broke the world records for the 400m and 800m events, while winning two golds at the 1983 World Championships at Helinski (Domonhoe et al, 1986).

Shireen Bailey knew Kratochvilova quite well, when she forgot her feminity licence (dubbed the "fem card" which verifies clinical evaluation of "femaleness"). For she had just recently changed her surname through marriage, so her name did not appear on the IAAF computer list. Word got out that she would not be able to compete, and there was Jarmilia Kratochvilova, who many runners have referred to as a "freak," waiting to compete the following day. The headlines compared Jarmilia with Bailey's feminine qualities, making a spectacle of the scene, at the Europa Cup at Crystal Palace. But the next day, she was able to run the 800m race, as the laboratories agreed to do a rush job on a sex chromatin assay (Turnbull, 1988).

The "fem card" soon became just as important as passports among athletes, through the IOC. Getting the fem card, however, seemed much more of a feat to many athletes, then their competitions. One example is Debbie Meyer "who worried [more] about the sex test at the Olympics . . . than she did about the 200 metres freestyle. She had the test done privately before leaving for Mexico City because she worried that she had trained herself out of being female." The test showed that she had a normal XX genotype, "and she [went on to] set a new Olympic record in Mexico." But if she was not "able to afford to take the test privately, she might have given up" her career in swimming (Turnbull, 1988). Moreover, it could have seriously jeaprodized her ability to compete. More importantly it remains to be asked how many other women are equally affected today.

Meanwhile, many intersexuals have been banned from competition, and it is still happening. Ferguson-Smith et al documents that 1 in every 504 elite female athletes, between 1972 and 1990, were found ineligible as a result of sex chromatin testing. Yet not one has ever been found to be male (1991).

However, such an account obviously underestimates how large an issue this really is, since it is estimated that 1-2% of the general population is in someway intersexed (Fausto-Sterling, 1993a, 1993b). This includes such well known conditions like clitoromegally, various pseudohermaprodite etiologies like androgen insensitivity syndrome, and so forth, which may or may not have anything to do with sex chromatin. Futhermore, about 0.5% or less of the general population may be born with "ambiguous genitalia." Overall, there is a much larger arena in sports than elite athleticism alone, none of which can see any justice if it does not have a system by which to model, with it's less organized frontier.

Furthermore, this account also underestimates the number of intersexuals in elite athleticism, because sex chromatin screening does not disqualify all intersexuals, since intersexism in not just present via abnormal sex chromosomes. Although gynecological evaluation is still required for the fem-card, while those who unofficially win medals must submit themselves for drug testing and urinate "in front of" a lab technician, other deviations still occur. In addition, many more professional, amateur, and recreational athletic events model the use of various screening methodologies in female elite athletics, none of which have publicized results of those failing to meet the required standards.

In contrast, girls who later transition to live as men, are often excluded from the sporting world, for various reasons, like the fact that they must take androgenic steroids to prevent osteoperosis without functional gonads. Equally important is the reality that many otherwise "normal" females compete with such conditions like polycystic ovarian disease, which can be mild, to early pregnancy when the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone is present, which can be extreme.

One neglected intersex state commonly over looked is Turner's syndrome in athletics. Ironically this is the syndrome once thought to be especially marked by Victorian femininity, who's era might be argued to have no biological basis. de la Chapelle (1986) has reported several such individuals with Turner's syndrome, denied their life-long careers in athletics, because they were found to be missing an X chromosome. This is expressed as XO, instead of the normal XX.

Today, medical opinion from de la Chapelle, and many others, have claimed time and time again, that what is happening here is "savage" (1986; Simpson 1986; de la Chapelle, 1987; Turnbul, 1988; Ferguson-Smith et al, 1991, 1992; Ljungqvist et al, 1992; Wilson, 1992; Simpson et al, 1993). Others have praised the effectiveness of sex testing and have equally justified any negative impact as "a small price to pay" (Bassis, 1987; Dingeon, 1992; Dingeon et al, 1993).

Maria Jose Martinez Patino

One such person who had to pay this small price was Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez Patino, who was "subjected to a lifetime ban from national competition" when "testing revealed an XY chromosome configuration in 1986." At 24 years of age, as the national Spanish record holder for the 60 meter hurdes, she did not know that she had androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which does not allow some genetic males to metabolize androgens, as they extragonadally aromatize into estrogens, and feminize the body into the female habitus. Having a completely normal female body, with the exception of her lacking internal reproductive structures, her situation is common-place in the athletic world. For with elite training, hormonal replacement therapy, and exercise induced amenorrhea, many elite female athletes never have menstruated. Thus those athletes with AIS may easily go undetected. According to Ferguson-Smith (1992) and Dingeon et al (1992), on both sides of this arguement, this is the most common form of intersexuality being discriminated against today.

Athletes with AIS are "thought" to be especially disabled, since they cannot even benefit from androgens at a physiological female level (To read otherwise read Complete Androgen Insensitivity "Syndrome": A Model For Human Performance in Sports). This is especially true since there is no jurisdiction in athletics for what classifies female androgen levels, since some female athletes normally metabolize more than sedentary men (McArdle et al, 1996). In Patino's case the Internation Olympic Commitee (IOC) reinstated her, "but only after she had suffered two years of inactivity, [and] the withdrawel of her national scholarship ..." She also suffered "... loss of her athletic residence, the forced dismissal of her coach, and a painful period of shame and embarrassment in which friends and her boyfriend deserted her " (Cahn, 1994; Carlson, 1991). And her case was exceptional, since other athletes today are not as fortunate.

Presently intersexuals are banned from competing by the IOC. That is unless enough media and political hype is generated about pariticular individuals, which is rare.

The IAAF claims that they allow intersexual/transsexual individuals to compete, once having undergone a full clinical evaluation, unlike the IOC. Proper intervention is usually assumed confirming the level of adrogenization via genital evaluation. However this is the least relavent parameter to assess. Valenta et al, for example, states that when eugonadic male transsexuals are given estrogenic steroids before pubescence, their external genitals completely masculinize (1992), regardless, due to the adrogynous presence of dihydrotestosterone. Hence even if one is otherwise completely feminized, they would not qualify, unless they had genital surgery with the presence of prenatally sensitized genital tissue to androgens. Realistically, most intersexual/transsexual individuals never fit this category, unless intervened with after birth. It is therefore clear that they do not allow individuals to compete without genitoplasty. Hence it is my opinion that they completely ignore intersexual athletes, Media hype has been the only prerequisite available for authorization, which is obviously nothing more than inhumane.


Throughout history intersexuals have dominated some women's competitions. Some have set world records. Many more have not achieved as much, and today, their banishment from sports is common. Yet not one quality, be it sex chromosomes which fail to determine "the least relavent parameter of sex" (de la Chapelle, 1986), genitalia which do not compete in sports, or habitus via musculture, height, hip circumference, etcetera, have remained exclusive to sex. Clearly generalizing such ideals among the general population might prove statistically significant. But among elite athleticism, the essential fascist nature of sports is to pick the winner among the strongest, nurturing those qualities to the disadvadvantage of others, even if it involves fundamentally fostering those females who have the potential to be more physically adept than most men.

It is not enough to question the place of intersexuality, erased and brutalized between two social polarities: the male/female duality. For I will not hesitate to argue the importance of being born with the best muscle fiber composition (Komi et al, 1979), VO2 max (J. Daniels, 1974) bone and muscle architecture (McArdle, 1996), and genetic adaptability to different forms of training (Hamel et al, 1986). For these are more statistically significant in all levels of athleticism, than among the statistical significance of two broadly generalized categories of sex. Jean Wilson, the chief editor of Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, puts it this way,

"It is important that all society, including sports organizations, recognize that gender development in not always clear cut. The only appropriate way to assign to one or the other sex is to allow them to choose for themselves. It is equally important that this minority not be discriminated against. It is possible of course (but not established) the the accompanying hormonal imbalances in some of these ["disorders"] might prove athletic advantage. However, people are not equal in athletic prowess in regard to height, weight, coordination, or any other parameters, and it follows that this is just another way in which athletes would not be equal. Nevertheless, many sports organizations have refused to stop sex testing entirely, for reasons that are not clear from the policy statements (1992)."

Sex testing has then proved destructive. It has never once weeded out one male in history, and it has only served to humiliate those who could not fit the sexist assumptions of the reigning cultural imperatives.

The cultural bias that there can only be "male" and "female," synoymous with "man" and "women," has hindered society from accepting intersexism as a social entity. And it is this social deniabiltiy that is responsible for such great injustices. Sports officials, and the medical community at large, need then to recognize intersexism in sports, fundamentally as a human rights issue.

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