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Sports: Transgender Issues  
page: 1  2  

Even after the advent of chromosomal testing, some athletes accused of impersonating women were, like Ratjen, apparently either intersexed or victims of chromosome abnormalities. "There was a naïve assumption that everyone who was a female athlete but was genetically male, was an impostor," notes Joe Leigh Simpson.

Other critics cite the case of Spanish hurdler María Martínez Patino, who failed a gender test in 1985 and was banned from sports, though she was later reinstated. Before submitting to the chromosome test, Patino knew nothing of the birth defect that had left her with male chromosomes and without a uterus.

Transgendered Athletes

An early Olympics gender controversy involved Czech runner Zdenka Koubkowa, who broke the women's world record for the 800-meter dash at the Commonwealth Games in London in 1934. Chromosomal testing was far in the future, but a pre-Olympics genital evaluation some years later failed to establish Koubkowa as unambiguously female.

She was not only stripped of her award and barred from participating in the Olympics, but also subjected to public humiliation when a photograph of her hermaphroditic state was published in a medical book. At about that same time, Koubkowa, who had been raised as a girl, began living her life as a man.

In Berlin in 1936, another call for clinical examination of an international athlete arose when United States runner Helen Stephens won an Olympic gold medal for the 100-meter sprint.

When Stephens beat Stella Walsh, a Polish-American sprinter competing for Poland, by 1.8 meters, a Polish journalist accused Stephens of being a man. (Accounts of the controversy emphasize that Stephens had once been propositioned by Adolph Hitler.) An examination eventually established that Stephens was female.

But sixty years after losing to Stephens, it was Stella Walsh who was revealed to be transgendered. Walsh had been the 1932 Olympic 100-meter sprint champion and the first woman to break the twelve-second barrier. She had won two gold medals, set eleven world records, and won forty-one Amateur Athletic Union titles.

In 1980 Walsh was shot dead while witnessing a robbery in Cleveland. The autopsy revealed that the athlete who had lived her life as a woman had the genitals of a man.

Prominent athletes who had sex-change surgery after they had competed include two French track stars, Clair (later Pierre) Bresolles and Lea (later Léon) Caula. Both won silver medals for a relay race in the 1946 track and field European Championships; both later underwent genital surgery and lived as men.

At least one athlete, Erika Schinegger of Austria, has competed in both men's and women's Olympic events. As a member of the Austrian National Ski Team, Schinegger won the 1966 women's downhill ski title; but shortly thereafter, when the Barr-body test was introduced, she was found to be chromosomally male and barred from further women's competitions.

After undergoing four genital surgeries, she changed her name to Eric, married a woman, fathered a child, and competed in cycling and skiing as a male.

Although transgendered athletes are frequently challenged or disqualified by athletic unions, a new understanding may be emerging. For example, Australian golfer Mianne Baggar qualified for the Ladies' European Tour when organizers amended their rules in 2004 to permit post-operative transsexuals to compete.

Sex Testing

Throughout the 1990s, a chorus of geneticists and physicians challenged the Barr-body test, as well as a new and easier sex-typing procedure that replaced it at the 1992 Winter Olympics in France.

Although the new test was "easy enough to be done by a technician using a prepared kit," Christopher Anderson wrote in the scientific journal Nature, the very ease with which the test can be conducted "risks widespread sex testing in the absence of a clear idea of what the results actually mean."

Although challenges to chromosomal testing focused not on discrimination against transgendered athletes but on the gender verification tests' inability to distinguish between chromosome abnormalities and birth defects, such scientific concerns evoke the dilemma that transgendered and intersexed athletes face.

Although Renee Richards and others might conceivably enjoy some competitive advantage, "It is also true," notes editor of Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine Dr. Jean Wilson, "that people are not equal in athletic prowess in regard to height, weight, coordination, or any other parameters, and it follows that this is just another way in which athletes would not be equal."

In 2000, the International Olympic Committee quietly dropped sex testing. As our understanding of human genetics advances, and as more transgendered and intersexed people tell the stories of their struggles, it becomes increasingly obvious that traditional notions of gender are inadequate and discriminatory.

"It is important that all society, including sports organizations, recognize that gender development is not always clear cut," Wilson writes. "The only appropriate way to assign these people to one or the other sex is to allow them to choose for themselves."

Carolyn Kraus

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social sciences >> Overview:  Intersexuality

Intersexuality (formerly referred to as hermaphroditism) is a congenital anomaly in which an individual's external genitalia or internal reproductive systems fall outside the norms for either male or female bodies.

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arts >> Overview:  Sports: Gay Male

While sports, at least on the major competitive level, may be the final closet for gay men, there have nevertheless been a number of gay male elite athletes.

arts >> Overview:  Sports: Lesbian

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social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender Activism

Since the late nineteenth century, transgendered people have advocated legal and social reforms that would ameliorate the kinds of oppression and discrimination they suffer.

arts >> Didrikson, Mildred "Babe"

Despite all her triumphs, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, one of the greatest women athletes in history, was taunted by charges of "mannishness" and "unnaturalness."

social sciences >> National Center for Lesbian Rights

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arts >> Outgames

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arts >> Richards, Renee

Transsexual tennis player Renee Richards successfully sued the United States Tennis Association when it barred her from competing in the U.S. Women's Open, establishing an important precedent for the rights of transsexual athletes.


Anderson, Christopher. "Olympic Row over Sex Testing." Nature 353 (October 31, 1991): 784.

Bassis, Lisa. "A Legal Conundrum: Transsexuals in Athletics." Comment: A Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law 2 (Spring 1978): 369-417.

Cahn, S. K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Donohoe, Tom, and Neil Johnson. Foul Play: Drug Abuse in Sports. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Ferguson-Smith, M. A. "Olympic Row over Sex Testing." Nature 355 (January 2, 1992): 10.

Richards, Renee, with John Ames. Second Serve. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

Simpson, Joe Leigh. "Gender Testing in the Olympics." Journal of the American Medical Association 256 (October 10, 1986): 1938.

Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Olympics. London: Aurum Press, 1996.

Wilson, Jean. "Sex Testing in International Athletics." Journal of the American Medical Association 267 (February 12, 1992): 853.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kraus, Carolyn  
    Entry Title: Sports: Transgender Issues  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 4, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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