Bruce Kidd competed in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He is a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto and an honorary member of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
As the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo approaches, a chill is descending upon the women athletes of the world: the fear that the International Olympic Committee will reinstitute the female sex test.
Throughout its long, tragic history, the sex test has been used to denigrate, exclude, and in a few documented cases, coerce healthy athletes from the Global South into completely unnecessary and crippling surgeries because they did not conform to the European ideal body type. In some countries, the mere threat of the test has been used to expel female athletes from national programs, deny them benefits, and force them into poverty and even suicide. As scholars and investigative journalists uncover the great harm it has caused – most recently, a German documentary by Olga Sviridenko, Edmund Willison and Hajo Seppelt on Ugandan running champion Annet Negesa – the focus has been on Africa and Asia, where athletes are the most vulnerable.
Western athletes, however, are not immune. An accomplished white Canadian high jump champion once told me that “since the testing starts with how a woman looks, it scares all of us.”
The best known version of the test is the one that World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations) has used to drive double Olympic champion Caster Semenya from the sport. That test, which is now being challenged in Swiss Federal Court, bans women athletes with a high amount of natural testosterone from the events Ms. Semenya runs. But other international federations, such as soccer’s governing body FIFA, require “gender verification,” for which there are no guidelines, no provision for appeal with legal representation, let alone counselling during what would be a highly stressful time in any athlete’s life. The fear is that federations use the policy to exclude athletes they don’t like.
There is no scientific, legal or ethical basis for such tests. For at least 50 years, leading geneticists have been urging the International Olympic Committee and international federations to drop them, only to be ignored. As the longtime IAAF official and IOC member Arne Lundqvist acknowledged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015: “There has been a long history of ignorance." The way that such policies have been developed flies in the face of the international standard for arms-length vetting, evidence and consultation with those affected. The World Medical Association has urged physicians not to participate in the implementation of the World Athletics test on the grounds that it violates medical ethics and human rights.
The last 50 years of science and scholarship have demonstrated that while gender is structured in many societies as a binary, it is not lived as binary. In fact, the determinations of gender, both social and biological, are extremely complex and fluid. To empower unaccountable sports bodies, advised by self-selected physicians, to exclude some women on the basis of their personal perceptions of womanhood is both wrong-headed and unfair.
I urge the IOC to do the right thing. Unlike World Athletics, which has said that human rights do not apply to it, the IOC undertakes to respect human rights. IOC president Thomas Bach has a progressive record on gender issues. In 2014, he responded to Russia’s open persecution of LGBTQ people during the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games by revising the Olympic Charter to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2016, when the IAAF was preparing its policy against Ms. Semenya, the IOC announced that there would be no gender testing prior to the Rio Games. The same should be announced for Tokyo.
Such action would put the IOC on the right side of history. I can remember well the expulsion of U.S. civil rights activists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, the abuse that anti-apartheid campaigners received during the 1960s and 1970s, and the ridicule heaped on feminist athletes who dared to demand gender equality in the events and leadership positions at the Olympics. Today, we applaud those earlier efforts and accept the justice of their advocacy. I am confident that international sports will eventually abolish the sex test as a relic of a racist, patriarchal past. The IOC can hurry this along by declaring that there will be no sex testing for Tokyo.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.