For the past 30 years, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been routinely checking female Olympic competitors to determine whether they are genuinely female, but the Committee has wisely decided to abandon such gender verification for games in Sydney.
Critics of the IOC's new policy contend that it ensures that transvestites will mount the medal platforms at the Sydney games, but the likelihood that a male masquerading as a female will actually garner gold, silver, or bronze is quite remote. To understand why no more than a small handful of males will be competing in female events, we need to understand why Olympic officials have been concerned about the gender of female athletes and why athletes' sexual identities are not automatically determined by the classical 'XX' or 'XY' chromosomal compositions.

In the early days of the modern Olympics, gender verification was not a pressing issue (not so in the original Olympic Games, however, when only men were allowed to compete - and the maleness of the competition was ensured by a rule which required all competitors to romp around in the nude). The founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, actually wanted the Olympics to remain a male-only 'club'. As a result, only 19 women took part in the 1900 games, and there were just 57 females at the 1912 Olympics; naturally this limited participation in female events ensured that the number of transvestites and transsexuals would be small.

Take Joan Benoit-Samuelson
However, the number of females competing in the games steadily grew (at the Atlanta summer games in 1996, there were around 3800 women taking part), and the competitiveness of the various female events naturally increased. Of course, as the female competitors became fitter and/or more skilled, their performances became more 'male-like'. To cite a few examples, Joan Benoit-Samuelson's 26.2-mile run at the Los Angeles games in 1984 bettered all male marathon performances before 1956. Even more notably, the 1988 Olympic record in the women's 400-metre free-style swimming event would have surpassed all men's performances prior to 1972, the 15-K female cross-country skiing standard in 1994 would have beaten all men's marks before 1992, and the winning women's 30-K time in 1992 outstripped everything male competitors had accomplished previously ('Gender Verification No More?', Medscape Women's Health, Volume 5(3), 2000).

As female performance standards improved so markedly, questions began to arise concerning the actual 'femininity' of many of the supposedly female Olympic competitors. In fact, the IOC was chagrined to learn that three track-and-field champions who competed as females in the pre-World-War-II games eventually underwent reconstructive surgery to remove external, male-like reproductive structures. The IOC also had to retrieve the medals of a Polish sprinter who competed as a female when it learned that she had male reproductive organs. And after World War II (during the Cold-War era), when the former Soviet Union and other Eastern-Bloc countries fielded rather formidable female Olympic teams (both in terms of performance and appearance), the IOC became quite concerned about widespread rumours that at least some of the 'females' on the teams were actually quite male.

So, in an attempt to keep males from throwing and running with females, the IOC began to check the sexual identities of female participants at the Games. This effort to create a level playing field for truly female athletes led to some terribly rude and crude gender checking, however: At first, female athletes were required to parade nude in front of a panel of female-doctor 'sexual judges' or else undergo direct gynaecological examinations (op. cit.).

Checking cheeks
To move away from this barbaric and humiliating practice, the IOC decided in 1968 to begin using a 'buccal-smear' test for sexual identity at both the winter and summer games. The test is a simple one, and - to the individual with a middle-school understanding of sexuality - it appears to be rather fool-proof. Oral-cavity cells are painlessly scraped from the inside of an athlete's cheeks, and these cells are then 'fixed' and examined for the presence of the XX chromosomal constitution traditionally associated with the female state.

Olympic officials hoped that this simple test would take care of sexual-identity problems, and they used the procedure from 1968 through 1992, but there was one basic problem which made the test unreliable: some XX individuals are not really females, and some XY athletes (who thus possess the 'male' chromosomal make-up) are not really males. For example, some individuals with the XY composition (who would be classified as 'males' by the buccal-smear test) have a condition called 'androgen resistance' which makes them immune to the sexual-developing and strength-promoting qualities of testosterone and leaves them physiologically - if not genetically - females. These athletes, although unassailably female, would fail the buccal test (since they did not possess the double-X chromosomal configuration) and could thus be disqualified from competing against other females at the Olympics.

In addition, since the buccal test really looks for the presence of twin-X chromosomes rather than the appearance of the meagre Y genetic body, athletes with an XXY chromosomal pattern could 'pass' the test and compete as females, even though they were basically males basking in the benefits of testosterone (the XXY composition is possible because during the formation of an egg, a female's two X chromosomes may hang together instead of separating, and when this egg then unites with a sperm cell containing a Y chromosome, an XXY individual may result; alternatively, an X and Y might cling to each other during the formation of a sperm cell, and if this sperm meets an egg with one X, an XXY embryo may begin development). In a slightly different scenario, XX individuals with just a portion of the testicular-determining Y gene transposed onto one of their X genes could pass as females, even though they were male in nature. Finally recognizing that such problems existed, the IOC in 1992 replaced the cheek test with DNA-based methods to detect Y chromosomal material, with a primary focus on the SRY sex-determining locus on the Y chromosome. This was actually a poor choice, since - as mentioned above - some XY individuals are essentially female. Nonetheless, the 1996 games in Atlanta incorporated a complicated process of SRY gender verification which included screening, confirmation of testing, and counselling of 'detected' individuals. In Atlanta, eight of 3387 female athletes tested positive for male chromosomal material, but all eight results were eventually ruled 'false positives'. The eight women were permitted to compete, because seven of the individuals had androgen insensitivity (described above), and the other athlete had undergone a complete gonadectomy and was presumed to have an enzyme deficiency which effectively neutralized male sex hormones (op. cit.).

So what happens now?
To put it bluntly, the IOC's new system didn't work very well (the frequency of 'false positives' - 100 per cent - was too great), and august organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the Endocrine Society, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society, and the American Society of Human Genetics all pleaded with the IOC to discontinue its gender-verification practices. These groups argued that testing was ineffective and expensive, and that the clothing used in Olympic competition, as well as the doping-control procedures (which were carried out under direct supervision of IOC officials), made it almost impossible for imposters to pass undetected. As a result, at its executive board meeting in 1999, the IOC decided to discontinue the practice of gender verification at the summer games in Sydney.

Of course, this raises a concern. Without any official gender-verification procedures in place, won't a male be able to slip through the cracks and compete as a female? Fortunately, the chances of this happening are not very high. For one thing, the direct supervision of urine voiding for drug testing allows officials to detect 'female' athletes with male reproductive organs; such athletes can then be tested for androgen insensitivity. Gonadectomized males would pass superficial examination, of course, but such individuals - as long as they were not doping themselves with steroids - would not be in a position to benefit from testosterone, since the hormone would essentially vanish along with their testicles. Compared to the possibility that a male athlete could masquerade as a female competitor, get away with it, and take home an Olympic medal, it's actually much more likely that a true female could carry out a 'physiological masquerade', hopping herself up on male steroids during her training and ultimately garnering gold, silver, or bronze in Sydney.

Owen Anderson