New critique of Olympic ‘sex-testing’ policy for female athletes with hyper-androgenism on American Journal of Bioethics.

The Olympics Games in London are just around the corner, now less than one month away. At the 2012 Games, more than a decade after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) abandoned routine sex testing for female athletes, a ‘sex-testing’ policy will once again be in place. The change came in response to the case of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose sex was first challenged by her competitors at the Berlin World Athletic Championship in 2009.

I have been interested in Caster Semenya’s case since then, when the at that time 18-yo South-African athlete became the center of a harsh contestation, and was subsequently banned by IAAF from competition for 11-months while investigations on her sex were being conducted. At that time I co-authored a brief report for the Journal of Medical Ethics with Paolo Maugeri from the University of Milan, where we argued that the answer to the question on the eligibility of Caster to compete should not be expected to lie in the result of sex-testing (at that time the tests were still underway), as such a decision is not to be informed only by science, but also by ethical and philosophical considerations on the meaning of athletic excellence, and of fairness in competition.

In a new paper just published on the American Journal of Bioethics, and co-authored with Katrina Karkazis from the Stanford Center of Biomedical Ethics et al, we tackle a broader question: i.e. we aim not only at systematically criticising the new policies released by IAAF on May 2011 on the eligibility of female athletes to compete in the female category, but we also point out the broader social implications of the concern about “overly masculine” women competing in sports. Also, these policies prompt us to reflect, by completely neglecting it, the questions of: Under what circumstances, if any at all, is it ethical to require individuals to undergo medical interventions in order to compete? What unintended consequences might these policies have for female athletes (for example, by reinforcing pressures to adhere to feminine standards of beauty)?

Ultimately, the debate started from Caster’s case demands us to reflect on the meaning and aims of sports, in other words, its ‘ethos’. Caster has qualified for the Olympics and focuses on gold after finishing second last year at World Track Championships in Daegu, South Korea. We will surely hear more about this debate at the London Olympics, and this paper could potentially be very helpful in straightening out the existing flaws in the scientific and philosophical assumptions underlying the new policies, together with the disputable way in which the policy itself were drafted, as we describe in the paper. In the end we hope this paper will nudge a revision of the IAAF policies.

The full AJOB paper is currently available without charge here.



  1. […] Humanities and Health tak pisze o nowych zasadach weryfikacji: Na Igrzyskach 2012, dekadę po tym, jak Międzynarodowe Stowarzyszenie Federacji Lekkoatletycznych (ang. IAAF) i Międzynarodowy Komitet Olimpijski (ang. IOC, pol. MKOl) odrzucili rutynowe testy na płeć wśród lekkoatletek, weryfikacja płci ponownie wróci do gry. Decyzję o zmianie podjęto na skutek zamieszania wokół południowoafrykańskiej biegaczki Caster Semenya, której płeć po raz pierwszy zakwestionowały współzawodniczki na Lekkoatletycznych Mistrzostwach Świata w Berlinie w 2009 roku. Po jej zwycięstwie podczas Mistrzostw Świata w 2009 roku, południowoafrykańska lekkoatletka Caster Semenya została poddana testowi na płeć. Zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości […]

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