It is time for sport to turn to more practical ways than biological testing to determine eligibility to compete in elite women’s sports events

In difficult social or political contexts, we often hope that science will forge a path to decision making that sidesteps the messiness of culture and values. If only scientists could identify the specific biological factors that distinguish male from female, then the issue of “sex testing” in athletics would be easy to resolve.

But sometimes the most important thing we learn from science is that science cannot perform the political or social work that we’d like it to. In my forthcoming book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I explore the science and politics of sex testing in elite sport, an issue that continues to bedevil sport administrators. After years looking for and not finding the sex testing Holy Grail via science, it is time to look at alternative ways to determine who is eligible for participation in elite women’s sports.

This week, the debate over sex testing in sport will be revisited due to the successes of Caster Semenya, a South African Olympian who is a favorite to win a gold medal in the 800 metres. In a high-profile case in 2009, Semenya burst onto the international scene in Berlin with a stunning performance in the 800m. She was immediately investigated by the IAAF, the body that oversees international athletics competition, over concerns about her eligibility to compete in women’s events, largely based on her appearance. Semenya was cleared to compete as a woman by the IAAF a year later.

The episode, and the IAAF’s poor handling of it, led the athletics governing body to develop a new set of rules for eligibility into women’s competition based on testosterone levels. But those new rules were tossed out last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which argued that high testosterone levels in women did not lead to “such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category.”

The absence of clear rules has led to a vigorous debate over testosterone or other techniques that might be used to sex test athletes. Much of that debate veers into territory that is at times overtly sexist and degrading. The IAAF itself says that a policy is needed to show “respect for the very essence of the male and female classifications in athletics.” Under its testosterone policy, the IAAF provided criteria that could be used to identify women who may be in violation of its testosterone regulations. These criteria include the size and fullness of breasts, hip size, and other conventional stereotypes of femininity. Sexism in the sex testing debate is not found only in online discussion.

But as debate proceeds, the world moves along. Sport can’t wait for the elusive Holy Grail, as IAAF experts have explained: “We must find ways to take into account that sex is not neatly divided into only two categories in the real world.”

So how should sports organizations use science to draw a line between men and women for purposes of competition? The answer seems obvious: they shouldn’t. We should stop searching for the biological “essence” of males and female and instead take a more pragmatic approach.

Some observers have come to a similar conclusion and have recommended a policy of “anything goes,” in which an athlete simply determines his or her gender when entering a competition and that is that. This approach respects the dignity of the athlete, but presents some practical obstacles. For instance, even though fraud has not been a significant problem in the past, opening up participation to anyone on their say-so could lead to mischief if men enter women’s competitions.

Fortunately, sporting organizations are no strangers to classifications challenges. The resolution of such a challenge in a different context offers some guidance on how to deal with segregating women and men in competition.

In elite sport, nationality refers to the country (or political body, as not all sporting nations are independent, sovereign countries) that the athlete represents in competition. Sporting bodies have learned that nationality is not the same thing as legal citizenship. In the pursuit of sporting success, some nations have shown a willingness to issue passports to elite athletes who have very few ties to the country whose name is on their new passport. That practice has forced sports organizations to come up with new rules for governing nationality.

Some critics of nationality guidelines see the fundamental ambiguity in such rules and call for them to be abolished. Others see in the rules the “very essence” of nationality. For instance, when it was revealed that the teenage Manchester United star Adnan Januzaj, a Belgian citizen of Albanian descent, would be eligible to play for the England national team, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshire prompted a row by tweeting: “The only people who should play for England are English people.” Kevin Pietersen, a cricket player who was born in South Africa but played for England, took exception to the comment and replied with a list of English sports stars of various national lineages: “Interested to know how you define foreigner ...? Would that include me, Strauss, Trott, Prior, Justin Rose, Froome, Mo Farah?”

Sporting bodies, wisely, have not waded into the thicket of defining the essence of nationality, lest it open up issues of ethnicity, historical conquest and subjugation, race, and politics. But these bodies also reject a policy of anything goes that would risk turning national sport competition into a club-like competition where athletes are traded, bought, and sold. Nor do these bodies generally rely on legal citizenship. For instance, according to Fifa’s rules, citizenship is not a sufficient basis for eligibility to play on national soccer teams.

Sporting bodies have adopted procedural guidelines to reflect the reality of nationalism while avoiding making a mockery of the categorization. Consequently, there are strict criteria for changing nationalities. Some say that they are not strict enough.

As with the issue of sex testing, the procedural guidelines for determining nationality are openly debated and challenged and found by some to be unsatisfactory. But unlike with the sex testing guidelines, sporting bodies do not appeal to scientific criteria or physical appearance to determine nationality (though one could easily imagine the use of genetic tests to determine ancestry for purposes of nationality). The key difference between nationality and sex testing is that those who govern sporting bodies appear to believe in a binary differentiation between men and women, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. In other words, they reject the idea that science can determine “Englishness” but accept the idea that science can identify “femaleness.”

What would a procedural approach to determining eligibility for participation in women’s events look like if it were modeled on nationality guidelines? Here are some thoughts:

Legal status alone would be insufficient, and it may or may not be necessary (currently some countries recognize men and women, others recognize a greater number of genders, and still others have no formal policy regarding gender status).
Participation in the men’s or women’s competitions would be determined initially by the athlete in the first instance of participating in organized national or international elite competition segregated into men’s and women’s categories. This would in almost all cases take place at the youth or junior level.
On reaching senior competition and legal adulthood, the athlete would sign an affidavit testifying to his or her gender.
Consistency in participation in men’s or women’s competitions would be required from the first instance through senior (i.e., adult) competitions.
In those cases where an athlete wishes to change gender categories, policies and procedures would cover this contingency.
Challenges under this approach would focus on whether procedures were followed for determining eligibility, not on medical tests or examinations, and certainly not on the “essence” of femininity based on criteria of physical appearance or biological markers.

Becoming an elite athlete is a monumental achievement, requiring years of commitment and effort. It also requires some luck in having the physical capabilities necessary to achieve success at the highest levels of competition. Many exceptional athletes have exceptional physical characteristics. Some athletes have appearances that may challenge or be at odds with conventional gender norms. Sporting organizations should embrace this diversity, rather than trying to normalize it.

The policy recommended here has three distinct advantages over other proposals that have been advanced.

First, this policy is consistent with the state of scientific understandings of biological sex and gender. Any effort to implement a biological test to distinguish men from women is bound to fail in the sense of producing false positives and false negatives. Such failures have been shown repeatedly to violate human dignity. A policy consistent with scientific understandings and evidence would eschew any such test.

Second, it places the onus of responsibility for determining gender on the athlete rather than on an international sports organization. For those concerned about fraud: If parents want to raise their boy as a girl for several decades in hope of producing an elite female athlete, then we can address such deviousness when it occurs. Until it does, it should not be a significant concern.

Third, despite recognizing that gender is a social construction, a procedural approach acknowledges and reinforces the fact that gender is very real in terms of its social functions. Considerations of gender have changed over time and will continue to change in the future. As society changes, how individuals see themselves will also change. The policy recommended here rejects the idea of the “very essence” of men and women and is capable of evolving as social norms change. How those norms change involves complex sociological, cultural, and political factors. Sports officials should not be in the business of trying to supersede these factors, much less codify them via regulation.

Under the approach recommended here, what would the response be when a woman with bulging muscles or a deep voice wins an athletic competition? It would be to give her a medal and our applause and to be thankful that, after more than half a century, sport has finally been able to leave sex testing behind.