Olympics’ New Hormone Regulations: Judged by How You Look

This post was coauthored by Hida Viloria.

The International Olympic Committee recently released a new sex-testing policy that could prevent women athletes with hyperandrogenism, determined by natural testosterone level, from competing in London on the basis that they have an unfair advantage over their competitors. (The I.O.C. claims the test is not intended to determine sex but “to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible” to participate in women’s categories.) The policy rests on the assumption that testosterone is related to athletic prowess, but there is no scientific evidence to support this assertion. Despite folklore, testosterone is not the key factor that builds muscle.

Since women athletes are not all uniformly sex tested, there is a selection process in place that might prove to be incredibly damaging. Less feminine-looking women athletes will likely be singled out to undergo investigation. If a woman chooses a short hairstyle, has “mannish” mannerisms or is in any way more masculine-looking, she will likely be under suspicion.

The I.O.C. Medical Commission chairman, Arne Ljungqvist, has complete control over who must undergo sex testing, how and by whom the investigation will be conducted and, most importantly, the final outcome.

It isn’t clear if women athletes will be able to compete during investigation. If they aren’t, we are concerned that their confidentiality will be jeopardized. People will wonder about missing competitors. Whispers and gossip trails will likely follow. If women athletes are indeed prohibited from competing while under investigation, they are being punished before any evidence has been collected.

In short, the policy forces women athletes to worry about looking like ladies. This is to be expected in beauty competition, but isn’t sports competition about athletic performance, not one’s looks? What message does it give women? You can win, but make sure you look pretty?

Women who have naturally high testosterone levels are not cheating. They are not using performance enhancers. They are competing in their natural bodies.

Even if we pretend, for a moment, that testosterone predicts athleticism, it’s still wrong to single out hyperandrogenism with its overproduction of testosterone as the one natural condition that can disqualify a woman from competing in the Olympics. Why not also disqualify those who are far taller or have far better eyesight than others? All elite athletes have exceptional bodies. Women athletes with hyperandrogenism should not be the I.O.C.’s poster child for fairness. To disqualify a woman because she naturally has more testosterone than other women is patently unfair.

As Jen Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist from Chicago, shared with us, “This policy can ruin an athlete’s career not because she performed poorly but because of how she looks—and that’s a crime.”

Photo of South African runner Caster Semenya, who has been subjected to sex-testing and gender verification in the past, under Wikimedia Commons


  1. I think the Olympic body (not being gender specific) is something that we have a particular expectation about. I would argue that ideal has indeed changed throughout history, especially for female. We celebrate the muscle and strong exterior. Female athletes are more muscular and we celebrate that more now than we prior to the 1980s. But as you have shown, if they are too muscular (or masculine) due to hyperandrogenism, then are asked to go under sex testing. We question their gender based on physically. We did not seem to have this issue before the 1970s and 1980s. So what is our expectation of female athletic bodies now?

    Excellent article.


  2. THERE ARE MORE THAN 2 GENDERS! We need MORE categories for athletes, not exclusion of athletes!

  3. Rashed Chowdhury says:

    I wonder if men will also be subject to the same standards.

    • Me, too. >_>

      The men would have no good reason to complain at the Olympics, if so. All women aren’t even allowed to compete, because, apparently, the condition of being female is, once again, refused to be completely understood.

      Humans come in all kinds of bodies, women are human, like men.

  4. This is definitely troubling. I agree strongly with the sentiment behind this statement: “Why not also disqualify those who are far taller or have far better eyesight than others? All elite athletes have exceptional bodies.”

  5. Elizabeth F says:

    So I have hyperandrogenism and I can tell you I won’t be winning any Olympic medals. Here’s what I can tell you about it: It’s a symptom of PCOS. Because of that PCOS, I gained weight rapidly right when I hit puberty. No middle or high school team would take me no matter how much I wanted to play. In college, discovered I could balance out the hormones with birth control pills. I didn’t get a diagnosis of PCOS and the related hyperandrogenism until I was in my 30s. I’m quite athletic now. I do tend to add muscle more easily than other women – though only when I’m on the pill. However, I imagine there are far more girls out there like me than the ones in the Olympics. The ones who have undiagnosed PCOS, who gain weight at puberty, and who won’t play sports because of it. That won’t change until we make thorough and accessible adolescent reproductive health care a part of our culture.

  6. Chris Somers xxy says:

    I wonder if the women in the different categories of various sports could also be similarly categorised for a case of suspicion, For instance the women in the swimming pool events are exceptionally muscular as opposed to those who are within gymnastics or runners. Should they also be tested as being unsuitable to swim for the simple reason they are perhaps far more muscular than those in other sports. It appears that the Olympic Games has other agendas other than sport and are not short off of becoming akin to the dreadful period of the Inquisition played out by the RC Church a few hundred years ago. Which muscles and are we allowed to develop and if we do whether by exercise, and or hard work and excellent nutrition rather than steroids who has the right to foreclose on those who play by the overall general rules of fairness. This definitely is becoming to look like a witch hunt as to which one is a witch and therefore must be eliminated!

  7. Sarah Fina says:

    Perhaps my comment seems a bit old fashioned.
    However, while one would expect olympic female athletes to
    have more muscular bodies, I cannot comprehend
    why there is this trend of 13 year old female gymnasts
    needing to look so very exaggerated, distorted and deformed.

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