Lia Thomas, trans swimmer, revives the debate on sex testing in sport

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“It seems clear that the defendants knowingly instituted this test for the sole purpose of preventing the plaintiff from participating in the tournament,” a New York Supreme Court judge wrote. Richards played at the US Open that year, aged 43. She was quickly eliminated from the singles tournament but qualified for the doubles final.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight women failed the chromosome test because they carried Y chromosomes. All were allowed to compete after they were shown to have hormonal conditions that prevented them to follow a typically male development. At the 2000 Olympics, international sporting bodies had abandoned the chromosomal test and returned to ad hoc medical examinations.

Testosterone-based sex testing began a decade ago after South African athletics star Caster Semenya won the 800 meter race at the 2009 World Athletics Championships by more than two seconds. Examined for her physical strength, Semenya was forced to undergo examinations by an endocrinologist and a gynecologist, as well as mental health assessments by a psychologist.

The results of these tests were never made public, but Semenya later revealed that she was forced to take drugs to lower her testosterone in order to compete. In 2011, World Athletics, the body that oversees track and field events, introduced its first policy for women with high testosterone, limiting concentrations of the hormone to 10 nanomoles per litre. (The average testosterone level in women is less than 3 nanomoles per liter, while in men it typically ranges from 10 to 35 nanomoles per liter.)

Many experts believe the rules were changed because of Semenya. “It was really a reaction to a phenomenal athlete,” said Schultz, the Pennsylvania state historian.

Four years later, the IOC relaxed its policy on transgender athletes, which previously required them to undergo genital surgeries and legally change their sex, to focus solely on testosterone. Transgender women should demonstrate reduced blood levels of the hormone for at least a year.

In 2020, after several challenges in international courts, the World Athletics testosterone rule was upheld. Semenya, who refused to take testosterone suppressing drugs, was unable to compete in the 2020 Olympics.


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