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Tara Lipinski had to do it. So did Michelle Kwan, Nancy Kerrigan and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Before setting blade on Olympic ice, these skaters all had to prove they were women. So has every other female athlete who has competed in the Olympics in the past three decades.

But after prodding from athletes and scientists, Olympic officials finally agreed to abolish the controversial gender-verification test introduced at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

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The 2002 Salt Lake City Games will mark the first Winter Olympics since 1972 in which women have not been compelled to report to the Olympic Village medical clinic to prove their femininity.

"From Sydney on, including Salt Lake City, there will be no normal gender verification," said Peter Tallberg, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission. "If the new system works well, gender testing will be gone forever."

Salt Lake organizers have been told by the IOC that they need not gear up to conduct the tests.

"They've told us that it doesn't occupy the place on the agenda that it did before," said Charles Rich, medical director of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Gender verification was introduced during the Cold War when nations relied on Olympic medals to prove the superiority of their political systems. After manly Soviet Bloc women began appearing at the Games -- spawning jokes about Ludmila the Russian discus thrower -- Olympic officials responded with chromosome gender testing in which a few cells are scraped from the inside of the cheek.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the test looks like just another vestige of the Cold War. "Today we live in a very different world," Tallberg said.

Modern doping controls, which require athletes to produce a urine sample in the presence of a medical official, have reduced the chances of men successfully competing as women, Tallberg said.

Widespread media coverage of international sport also makes such a charade more problematic.

In addition, many scientists have long dismissed the test used by the IOC as invalid. The American Medical Association recommended eight years ago that all sports stop gender testing. The International Amateur Athletic Federation abandoned gender testing in 1992. Three years ago, Norway ruled that genetic testing for the purpose of gender verification in sport was illegal.

At the Atlanta Olympics, the test identified about one in 400 women as males, but all were cleared by subsequent physical examination. Medical officials recommended after the Games that the chromosome test be abandoned. If the IOC wished to continue testing, random physical inspections should be substituted, they said.

French and Spanish scientists opposed the use of the test before the 1992 Albertville and Barcelona Olympics. Two years later at the Lillehammer Games, the Albertville team was called on to perform the tests after Norwegian medical officials refused.

For many years, Prince Alexandre de Merode, who heads the IOC medical commission, staunchly defended the tests, despite entreaties from one of the commission's own members, Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden. The IOC, de Merode said, had a responsibility to ensure no men competed in women's events.

But Ljungqvist, who also heads the IAAF medical commission, said the chromosome test did not fulfill that aim.

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"There are men with chromosomes like females and vice versa," Ljungqvist said. "If we screen for sex by using this test, women will be screened out and men will pass."

Gender is a very complicated matter, agreed Mario Capecchi, professor of human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Females usually have two X chromosomes while males have one X and a Y. "If Y DNA is present, then you think, 'Aha, this must be a male,' " Capecchi said. "But it turns out it's not true."

Females may have only part of a Y chromosome, which isn't enough to confer maleness. Or they may have a complete Y, but show no male characteristics because the Y chromosome is ineffective and unexpressed.

"That's where the failure of these kinds of tests comes in. [They're]not foolproof. You can do just as much damage as you can do good because you may misinterpret the results."

In Norway, the issue came to a head at the 1997 world cross-country skiing championships in Trondheim. The International Ski Federation was one of the few international federations that conducted gender testing. Norwegian scientists again objected. So did athletes and officials. No testing was done, and a law banning genetic gender testing was passed months later.

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The Trondheim experience convinced Tallberg, the Finnish chairman of the IOC athletes' commission, that Olympic athletes needed to know more about gender testing. He invited Ljungqvist to a 1998 meeting of the commission to outline his objections to the test and asked de Merode and Anita DeFrantz, an IOC vice-president, to explain why they supported it.

DeFrantz, who underwent gender testing herself as a rower at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, thought the test protected muscular athletes from having their femininity questioned.

"I still have my card from 1976 saying I'm a woman," DeFrantz said. "It was a screen. It was a deterrent. I'm pretty confident I competed against women. And that was what I intended."

DeFrantz said scientists didn't back the test because they didn't understand its purpose. "They thought it was used for something it wasn't used for," she said.

After hearing both sides of the argument, the commission asked Norwegian triple gold medalist Johann Olav Koss, a medical student, to investigate the issue. Koss's recommendation that the test be abolished as soon as possible was unanimously backed by the commission and sent to the IOC executive board.

At its June, 1999 meeting in Seoul, South Korea, the IOC agreed to refrain "on an experimental basis" from performing gender tests at the Sydney Olympics. "The IOC will nonetheless reserve the right to conduct such tests, if necessary," the IOC said in a statement.

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"What I could not achieve by going through the medical commission, I did by going to the athletes," Ljungqvist said. He began campaigning against the test in the mid-1980s before becoming a member of the IOC medical commission.

The hedging on the IOC's part was viewed largely as a face-saving measure since de Merode, the IOC's medical commission chairman, strongly favoured retaining the test.

But the executive board could hardly go against the wishes of its own democratically elected athletes' commission. In addition, if the IOC had continued testing, it likely would have faced legal challenges from women as other countries followed Norway's lead and banned the test.

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