Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Cyclist Kristen Worley trains at the Velodrome in London, Ont., on Aug. 30, 2007.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Kristen Worley remembers glancing down onto the street from the window of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.

Around her sat some of the most powerful people in Olympic sport. That might have been the moment it hit home. The competitive cyclist – who had been through proverbial hell and back since she was born a baby boy and adopted by an upper-middle-class Ontario family – had challenged sport on its rules around gender testing, sexual identity and hormone regulation.

And won.

“I remember many of my defeatists in Ottawa who said ‘Kristen, you’ll never do this.’ They were always trying to defeat me,” Worley said. “I remember looking out onto Bay Street and all the guys who were here, and thinking ‘I got them here.’ That was a real turning point … realizing that they’re just like you and me.

“Big powerful IOC [International Olympic Committee]. Big powerful UCI [International Cycling Union]. If you’re educated and you have the right information in front of you, you can do a lot of great things. I’ve learned as one person you can do it.”

Worley, with co-author Johanna Schneller, has released her memoirs Woman Enough: How a Boy Became a Woman & Changed the World of Sport, which chronicle her self-realization, transition and battle for fair and inclusive treatment in sport.

Worley, who was born a boy named Chris Jackson, was the world’s first athlete to be gender tested under the 2004 Stockholm Consensus. She went on to sue the IOC for a human-rights violation.

“And I did it as Kristen,” Worley said with a smile, in a recent two-hour interview. “I’m not standing there as Chris Jackson and all that history. I’m doing it as Kristen. I’m standing in front of these guys and I’m so darned proud. And they can’t touch me.

“We’re truly changing the game, and there’s nothing they can do now.”

Worley was born in 1966 to Tess Lynch, a young woman from a tiny village in New Zealand who travelled to Toronto to give birth in hopes her baby would have a better life.

“What I always come back to, is the decisions my mom made for me back then have allowed these things to happen,” Worley said of her activism.

Worley was adopted by Arlene and Jim Jackson. Her adoptive parents, particularly her dad, were very driven, she said. Sport was their means of communication. It was all about performance. Affectionate love was scarce.

Chris, whom Worley refers to in the third person, felt increasingly ill-at-ease as a boy.

“I don’t think of that person any more, to me that person has died,” Worley said.

Chris found solace in sports: running, water-skiing and cycling. He married Alison Worley and the two were together for 18 years, including seven years after Worley underwent sex reassignment surgery.

The Worley family, with whom she remains close, was an environment that “showed love, that showed compassion, that allowed me to be me.” She refers to Alison as her stepsister.

She’s had virtually no contact with her adoptive family over the past 20 years. She’s become close with Lynch, whom she calls “mum.” She spent a month last year travelling through New Zealand with Lynch meeting relatives.

Worley said the timing of the release of her book is uncanny. She’s worked behind the scenes with South African middle-distance star Caster Semenya, who’s awaiting a verdict in her challenge of IAAF rules that seek to control naturally high testosterone levels in female athletes.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has delayed its verdict until the end of April. The International Association of Athletics Federations – the world governing body for track and field – wants women such as Semenya, with what the IAAF refers to as “differences of sexual development (DSD),” to medically control their testosterone for at least six months before competing.

The United Nations recently said plans to classify women by their testosterone levels “contravene international human rights,” calling the restrictive medical intervention “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful.”

“This is the human-rights piece. They’ve stereotyped [Semenya] solely because of what she looks like,” Worley said. “We’ve just put this in a box and slapped Caster’s face on this and made it a testosterone issue.”

Worley argued that Semenya isn’t breaking world records. Other dominant athletes such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, she said, aren’t scrutinized for their physical gifts.

“Caster could never compete against the men, she’s eight seconds off the closest males,” Worley said. “We are only articulating and presenting that because of what she looks like, because of the androgen effects to her physiology, due to her higher levels of testosterone and her physiology. And we’ve done horrible things to this young person.”

In Worley’s case, because she was born male with XY chromosomes, her body requires six to eight times the level of testosterone than a woman to function at full health, but her surgery meant her body no longer generates any hormones. She applied for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for testosterone, and while she waited her health went into a tailspin. She finally received a TUE from the World Anti-Doping Agency, but said the level wasn’t high enough to support her basic health.

Because Worley had stopped competing, she was able to take her case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, rather than the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is the only legal avenue for an athlete with a dispute who is still active in the sport.

Formal mediation with Cycling Canada, the Ontario Cycling Association and the UCI led to several policy revisions around TUEs, plus agreements to implement, among other initiatives, such things as awareness and education programs on diversity and inclusion.

“Did we get everything we wanted? No,” Worley writes in her memoirs. “We gave a little, they gave a little. But we kept inching forward. We made people talk about it. We chipped away at their biases, got them to think about their knee-jerk responses: Why you think that a woman being healthy is a competitive advantage?”

Worley never achieved her dream of racing for Canada in an Olympics. But riding a divergent path has made her a voice for diversity and human rights in sport. And she wears the role well.

“I feel like I’ve been born to do this,” she said. “I feel the journey I was set on, the irony of the timing and all of this, I feel like I’m following a script and I’ve been told what to do, and along the way I find that I’m meeting amazing people.”