Enforcing the Binary; How Sporting Agencies Segregate and Govern Over Gender

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Written by Angie Reid, aka Easy Break Oven

For Derby Frontier

We think of human beings as a sexually dimorphic species. Putting aside cultural forms of dress, mannerisms, and speech patterns, there are statistical differences in body size and shape that vary with sex. But as far as mammals go, we’re practically identical. If human beings were as dimorphic as elephant seals, the average male would be 11 feet tall and weigh almost 550 pounds! According to anthropological studies, the ratio of heights between human males and females is only 1.07, and this holds across many different populations. (1) That’s a difference of only 7%. We also tend to think of men as being ‘better at sports’, and it is true that in most sports, the top performing man would always win over the top performing woman – but even here, the average difference in world records across sports is only 12.6%.(2) That’s just looking at raw numbers, without attempting to compensate for variables like the 7% difference in body height. So when there’s such overlap on average, but large differences when looking at top performers, how does one separate the sexes to ensure a fair playing field? As it turns out, they’ve been trying for more than 60 years – and still haven’t succeeded.

Sporting agencies, when trying to separate the sexes for competition, have instead been led astray into separating the sexes purely to enforce the gender binary. Consider the case of Karnah Soekarta, a female who competed for Indonesia in the 1958 Asian Games.

Her performance was recorded in the first IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) statistics book in 1983. But the record was removed in the 1987 version after Soekarta changed his gender to male during the intervening time – over twenty years after competing as a female. The same thing happened with Hala Atoura from Syria, who had his record removed after transitioning to male. In both cases, the gender transition occurred years after the competition!(3) There was also a case where Kathy Jager, a mother of two children, was accused of being a man due to “her muscular build, slim hips[,] and explosive style,” in a 1956 sprinting competition; her physique’s transgression of gender norms overshadowed even her motherhood.(3) In the quest to ensure men are not fraudulently competing as women, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has tried having ‘naked parades’ in front of judges, testing for the presence of XY chromosomes, and even specifically looking for the SRY gene – the so-called ‘master switch’ usually found on the Y chromosome that appears to initiate all male body development. Mostly what they found were women with intersex conditions, as “there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorization of people as male or female. “(3)

A significant part of the problem is that sporting agencies heavily subscribe to the binary-gender model, the idea that we’re all men or women, and nothing in between. As it turns out, nature is considerably more convoluted than that. Intersex conditions can result in far more combinations of chromosomes and hormone profiles than the xx/estrogen, xy/testosterone set that we’re used to. Although intersex people do not necessarily identify as trans*, there are particular conditions that are of particular significance to discussions of fair trans* participation in sport. One of these is 46-x,y Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS). In CAIS, the person’s chromosomes are that of a male, however, the androgen receptors simply don’t respond to testosterone, and so the body develops along female lines – including the visible genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. In fact, many CAIS women grow up unaware of their condition, and it’s only discovered when there is no onset of menarche during puberty. Woman will often have undescended testes that may be fully functional in producing testosterone, yet it has no effect. Interestingly, “…the prevalence of complete AIS appears to be substantially higher in athletic populations that in the general population – 1 in 421 through five Olympic Games, compared with approximately 1 in 5,000 for disorders of sex development in the general population.”(5)

But even if that testosterone floating around actually was being used by the body in some way, here’s the kicker: “…there‘s no evidence showing that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes. Clinical studies do confirm that testosterone (among many other factors) helps individuals to increase their muscle size, strength, and endurance (Bhasin et al. 1996; Ronnestad et al. 2011; Storer et al. 2003). It may seem logical to infer, then, that a person with more testosterone will have greater athletic advantage than one with less testosterone, but this is not necessarily so. Individuals have dramatically different responses to the same amounts of testosterone, and testosterone is just one element in a complex neuroendocrine feedback system, which is just as likely to be affected by as to affect athletic performance.”(3)

What if I told You...This is so counter to public perception that it bears repeating: “… Dr. Bhasin said that such testosterone oscillations may play no role. Testosterone has been shown to rise a little in anticipation of exertion, like a treadmill run, he explained. ‘But the explanations of cause and effect between athletic performance and testosterone are very weak’…In his own study, the volunteers injected with testosterone neither experienced improved endurance nor exploded in ’roid-induced rage, he said.” (6)

So why does every sporting organization that allows trans* participation have low testosterone levels as a criteria? Again, it seems that the enforcement of the gender binary has stolen focus from measures of actual effect. A key observation by Katrina Karkazis is that the IOC consulted with specialists in disorders of sex differentiation (i.e. intersex conditions) and sports administrators, though not sports physiologists, in producing its latest policy.   “They covered recent advances which could be used to clarify confusions and to address controversies among athletes like the [Caster Semeya]….The conference presented an extraordinary amount of data that can help avoid such international attention(3) [emphasis added].

This focus on enforcing the binary, combined with misguidedly using testosterone as the determining factor, produced the IOC’s 2012 Regulations on Female Hyperandrogonadism, which now requires cis-gender women to take androgen suppressors if their naturally occurring testosterone levels are higher than a certain range. (7) In effect, they have legislated what a woman is, and are requiring athletes to undergo medical intervention to fit it. A backwards situation if there ever was one! This policy, and the insistence on trans* MtF athletes having sex reassignment surgery before being eligible to compete (despite no Olympic sports in either the men’s or women’s divisions using the genitalia), show just how entrenched the idea of the gender binary is in sports organizations.

After 60+ years, we still haven’t found an easy way to test if someone should compete as male or female. Seems like it’s about time to re-consider the question.


(1) Human size evolution: no evolutionary allometric relationship between male and female stature. A. Gustafsson, P. Lindenfors, Journal of Human Evolution 47(2004) 253e266

(2) The science and management of sex verification in sport. R. Tucker, M. Collins, SAJSM vol 21 No. 4 2009

(3) Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes, K. Karkazis, The American Journal of Bioethics, 12(7): 3–16, 2012

(4) Far from the Finish Line: Transsexualism and Athletic Competition, J. Pilgrim et. Al. Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal Volume 13, Issue 2 2003 Article 4

(5) The science of Sex Verification and Athletic Performance, R. Tucker and M. Collins, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2010,5, 127-139

(6) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/10/fashion/10Fitness.html?

(7) http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Commissions_PDFfiles/Medical_commission/2012-06-22-IOC-Regulations-on-Female-Hyperandrogenism-eng.pdf



  1. Great post! Super-interesting topic. Easiest thing to do would be to just ask people how they identify and go from there… 🙂

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