Questioning The Gender Binary In Sports

Challenging The Gender-Binary in Sports

The summer Olympics is back and we need to talk about something we like to shy away from as a society: the gender binary in sports, the complications it causes, and whether we need it at all.

More and more, we are seeing the gender gap narrow in sports, especially in endurance and obstacle races. It’s 2016, and we’re noticing, now, more than ever before that the gender binary doesn’t fit everyone and may be a detriment to most of us. We don’t like to be stereotyped or forced into a boxes we didn’t choose, so why is it necessary to uphold the binary categories that are irrelevant to our worth, talents, and abilities? The gender binary has proven problematic for a number of athletes, particularly in the Olympics, which should have us questioning the gender binary altogether.

You might remember, Caster Semenya, an 18 year old from South Africa who won the women’s 800-meter event at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. But, you may not remember her win, and, instead, how she was publically scrutinized for her gender appearance. After Caster had won, her gender was in question because of her more “masculine” appearance. Race officials wondered, is she a woman or a man? She was, then, forced to take a “series of gender tests” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The test results reported her to be intersex, which is defined as having sexual anatomy that does not fit into the binary. Meghan Daum in her article, The Case of Caster Semenya, points out, “Society, in large part, has grown accustomed to thinking about race, religion, and even sexual identity in more than just binary terms-recognizing that people may be black and white, Catholic and Buddhist, even transgender-but being both sexes at once?”

Indeed, the idea that there are more than two sexes or that sex is constructed is hard for society to acknowledge, but the fact of the matter is that not every person fits perfectly into the binary gender categories of woman/man, female/male. In fact, no one, despite their gender identity, fits perfectly into society’s expectations of what a “real woman" and a “real" man is. We must challenge gender/sex beyond the binary in order to include the full reality of human bodies.

A Brief History of Sex/Gender Testing in the Olympics

Semenya isn’t the only woman athlete whose gender has been questioned in sports. There are plenty more stories. Let’s go back in time and investigate how and why gender/sex testing began in the Olympics.

Sex/gender testing in the Olympics began in 1966. According to the International Olympic Committee(IOC), sex tests were introduced because they wanted there to be “fairness” among the athletes, and prevent the “possibility of men sneaking into women’s competition.”  In addition, some researchers claim that sex/gender tests were introduced because two Soviet Union sister athletes, Irina and Tamara Press, apparently looked “butch”  and not “womanly” enough, and therefore were thought of as men impersonating women. When the sex/gender tests were first introduced, women had to “parade naked in front of a board of examiners.”  This way of detecting a woman athlete’s sex was banned in 1968 because women complained that the test was demeaning. The test was, then, replaced with one called the Barr-body tests, the buccal smear (sex chromatin test), which involves scraping cells from a cheek and looking under a microscope to detect the chromosomes a person possesses. The Barr-body test was used as a way of detecting an X chromosome, a sign of “female.”

Later, in the early 1990s, the IOC replaced sex chromatin tests with DNA-based methods to detect a Y chromosome, which was used at the 1992 winter games in Albertville, France. For those athletes detected as having a Y chromosome, “a comprehensive process for screening, confirmation of testing, and counseling” was given, which lasted until the 1996 Atlanta Games.  

A Threat to “Femininity”

The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, did not let women compete at the first Olympics because he thought, “women’s sports are all against the law of nature.”  Anne Fausto-Sterling in “Sexing the Body” states, “Olympic officials rushed to certify the femininity of the women they let through the door, because the very act of competing seemed to imply that they could not be true women.” Women competing in athletics was thought to be a threat to their “femininity.”  Even women thought that a certain level of athletics threatened their “femininity” and “womanhood.”  

Alison Carlson, who has tried to get the IOC to abandon the tests, says that there were women athletes who supported the sex/gender testing as a way to “reaffirm their femininity.” Carlson points out, “Women were buying into the underlying idea that once you get beyond a certain level of strength and agility, you’re no longer a woman.” Because of internalized and externalized sexism, athletics was seen as a threat to “femininity,” which women have been expected to subscribe to and possess as an inherent trait.

The sex tests stopped in 1999 after the IOC board voted to discontinue it, however it is used for individual cases. But, under what criteria is an individual case of sex testing defined?  The IOC states, “Athletes who identify themselves as female but have medical disorders that give them masculine characteristics should have their disorders diagnosed and treated” seeing intersex as a disorder that must be "cured."

More recently, Dutee Chand, the current national champion of the women’s 100m and who was the first Indian sprinter to compete in the finals of the 100m at an international athletic event, was one of these individual cases. In 2013, she ended up failing a hormone test at the Commonwealth Games and was banned from competition. She was also banned from competing in the Asian Games, but after fighting her case, the court ruled in her favor and she won the right to compete again. Should athletes have to win the right to compete because of gender?  

The IOC sees women who have “masculine” characteristics as having a condition, and this very condition needs to be treated. Semenya was suspected because she looked too “masculine?" But, what does looking too masculine mean?  How do we define masculinity? How do we define femininity? What about Chand? Why was she suspected to take a hormone test? In most athletic competitions, we still have certain expectations of what a woman competitor looks like and what a male competitor looks like.  

The Intersections of Race and Gender

Beliefs about gender vary cross-culturally, and Western ideas about gender are intersected with race and ethnicity. For example, the term intersexual is a Westernized one that does not exist in South Africa, where Semenya is from.  Zine Magubane, in her article, Sports, Race, Sex, and Shame: Rethinking Caster Semenya, points out, “The sexual difference of the Black woman-specifically her masculine appearance and somatic makeup-was, for many 19th and 20th century scientists, the essential proof that the races were inherently different.”  Semenya’s sex/gender was only questioned because she looked too “masculine,” meaning she did not look like a “typical” “woman.”  She did not look like a “typical” or idealized Western or White woman.  Western ideas about gender are intersected with race. Western domination constructs its gendered and racialized perspectives onto non-Western cultures and societies. Gender constructs are not universal and are deeply layered and connected to other social constructs.

When Semenya’s gender was questioned, society tried to shame her publicly for not fitting into the binary. This intention to shame was not just an individual one, but also a collective shame of anyone who did not fit the binary in a similar way. Magubane points out, “Within the broader category of shame, stigmatizing shame is distinctive because it ‘affects not only those who directly encounter the social reaction but anyone who happens to share their signal identity trait.” Semenya’s case is not an individual case, but one that stands for anyone who does not fit neatly into the binary-gender system as it intersects with race and other social constructs, both in and outside athletics.

How do we define gender/sex? 

“How does one ‘become’ a gender? What is the moment of mechanism of gender construction? And perhaps most persistently, when does this mechanism arrive on the cultural scene to transform the human subject into a gendered subject?” -Judith Butler

The IOC have only looked at an athlete’s chromosomes and genitals when sex testing thinking that a Y chromosome or penis constitutes a woman-identified athlete as a man, but not man enough to let her compete as one.  

Maria Patino, the top hurdler athlete of Spain in 1988, was revealed as an intersexual with a Y chromosome along with possessing anatomy that is deemed "female." At first, the IOC’s sex tests only evaluated genitals as a sign of being female, and then they switched to detecting chromosomes to decide who is female and who is male implying that there is some kind of norm of the human body. Judith Butler points out, “The norms that govern idealized human anatomy thus work to produce a differential sense of who is human and who is not, which lives are livable, and which are not.” Doctors and scientists have viewed intersexuals as possessing a “defect,” as being “abnormal and not human. But, what is defected or not human about an intersexual’s body?  What is an intersexual’s body anyway?

There are those bodies that look “female” on the outside, but do not have what is labeled “female” on the inside.  Also, there are bodies that look “male” on the outside but possess parts that are labeled “female” on the inside. Fausto-Sterling claims that there are many variations of the human body; in fact, there are many different types of chromosomes such as XXY, XYY, XO to name a few. 

In addition, every human possesses different levels and types of hormones. A recent study in Clinical Endocrinology tested elite male and female athletes’ testosterone levels.  Many of the male athletes tested below what is considered the “male” range and many of the female athletes tested higher than what is considered the “female” range. So, how do we account for this in athleticism? There are various theories about hormones and what qualifies as biological differences between women and men in athletics, but the bottom line is that there continues to be a number of athletes (and people in general) who do not fit the binary model we hold so tightly in place. How do we define the human body? How do we define who is qualified to compete?

Our ideas about bodies, “sex”, and gender have been constructed and problematic because we have restricted certain human beings from being who they are and performing their talents and capabilities. The binary sex/gender system is problematic for all of us, whether we were assigned a gender a birth that differs from how we identify internally, or whether our physical bodies were reconstructed at birth to fit a binary mold. Or, maybe we were teased in school for not being or looking “feminine” or “masculine” enough. Whatever our beliefs about hormones and bodies, it’s not acceptable to ban certain individuals from competing because they don’t fit our ideas of what a woman/man is.

Do we want to continue to try to live up to gender norms and structures or do we want to be free of them? How does operating under a binary gender system serve us? Doing away with gender distinctions in athletics can help all of us have better opportunities and achieve more than we ever thought possible.

Gender In Sports Is Already Changing

Newsflash, the shift of eliminating gender distinctions in sports has already begun. As mentioned earlier, two (though more than two exist) examples of athletics that are redefining the future of sports in relation to gender are obstacle courses and endurance races.

First, you’ve probably heard of the athletic competition television show American Ninja Warrior. Even if you’re not a regular viewer, you’ve most likely seen the video of Kacy Catanzaro be the first woman to beat the Warped Wall and complete a city finals course. On American Ninja Warrior all genders are competing on the same platform. That’s right, there’s one tough obstacle course that all the athletes compete on irrespective of gender. And, yes, the women are kicking ass; some are beating a lot of the men. There aren’t as many women as there are men yet, but in time, if the show stays popular or evolves into more of a sport and less of a television show, there is no doubt that the numbers for and achievement of women will continue to increase dramatically.

Secondly, this one you may not be as familiar with unless you’re a running nerd: The Badwater Ultramarathon. Some ultramarathons have been creating races where there is only one winner (instead of separate gender categories) for decades. While it may not have been an intentional decision towards gender equality in sports, it has created an environment that proves that athletic performance is not a reflection of gender. The Badwater Ultramarathon, deemed the World’s Toughest Race by National Geographic, only has one winner, whether you’re a woman or a man. And women have won it.

Badwater is a grueling race that takes place in mid-July starting below sea level in Death Valley, where temperatures rise over 120 degrees, and ends 135 miles later at the Whitney Portal (the trailhead to the top of Mt. Whitney), an elevation of 8,360 ft. It’s a race that takes out many of the ultramarathoning greats, but several women have been overall winners of the race. One woman, Pam Reed, from Arizona, won Badwater two years in a row, 2002 and 2003, while she was in her 40s. Eleanor Robinson, from Great Britain, at 39 years old, was the very first overall winner of Badwater when the race first began in 1987. There are other current running events where women are the overall winners as well.  These women have proven that having distinct binary gender categories for athletic competitions is not necessary.

Whether we’re ready for it or not, challenging the gender binary in sports has already begun and it’s looking likely that it will be the future of more sports. Some sports are using egalitarian models where all genders compete on the same platform, and in some instances, women outshine the men in these athletic competitions. It forces us to reexamine our ideas about gender, bodies, and athletic ability. We could all benefit from erasing gender distinctions in sports if it helps us focus more on our athletic talents and hard work instead of the confines of gender. As J.E. Munoz asks, “But must the future and the present exist in the rigid binary?”


Yes, we’re going to have to get creative if we want to change the gender binary in sports, but that’s how social change happens. Social change requires us to imagine beyond what we think we know, to imagine another world possible, and to begin creating these new possibilities in the here-and-now. It is up to us. It is possible. 

Want to be a part of changing the gender binary? Download your FREE How To Shift Your Gendered Language Cheatsheet below.