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2 August 2021

From the NS archive: Are women scared to run faster?

30 October 1987: Adrianne Blue says that women are just as good sports as men – and that some sportsmen may be women.

By Adrianne Blue

In 1987, the New Statesman published this extract from journalist and sports writer Adrianne Blue’s book “Grace Under Pressure”. The first “sex tests” at international athletics competitions were enforced in 1966. Since then such tests have been widely criticised. They are “an expensive over-reaction to a remote possibility”, said one Olympic official; “It’s a way of saying, ‘If you’re good at sport, you can’t be a real woman,’” said a sports psychologist. They also raise difficult questions over what it means to be a man or a woman, and where, in a world which so neatly categorises “male” and “female” athletes, people who have the biological make-up of both genders fit. Most simply, “As women don’t need a special card in other walks of life,” writes Blue, “the sex test obliquely tells women that they are second-class citizens in sportsworld, and that there is something worrying, something suspicious, perhaps even unnatural, about women doing well at sport.”


Because men are presumed to have an advantage in most sports, there is a suspicion in all sports that women who do well may be men in disguise. At the Olympics and other sacred sporting events, it is routine for women – but not men – to undergo sex tests. In 1966, when the sex tests were introduced, they were controversial. They still are. Twenty years on, in 1986, the Journal of the American Medical Association questioned their validity and called for an end to the unnecessary indignity of the tests.

In the first year of sex testing, 1966, at every major championship, female athletes lined up, sometimes dressed only in a towel, in the medical officer’s waiting room. In turn, each woman walked, passport in hand, into the examining room, dropped the towel, and the examiners had a good look. The British pentathlete Mary Peters remembers dropping the towel at the European Championships in Budapest. But even though, in that first year of sex testing, Peters had already had her genitals gawked at – inside and out – at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, she was so fraught at Budapest that she cannot remember how many doctors there were – she thinks about ten – or even whether they were male or female. She was relieved when she again passed the test.

By 1967, the mass strip-teases were over. Now the test was done by a less embarrassing saliva test. Chromosomes looked at under the microscope would reveal any man trying to pass as female. It was in Mexico, in 1968, that the tests were to get their Olympic debut.

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Before they started, a nervous Peters, who was captain of the British Olympic team, demanded to know what the British officials would do if any of the team failed the new chromosome test. The tests were being conducted in the name of fair play. But they could be terribly unfair in their social effects. “Supposing a girl just failed the test and was eliminated from the games in a blaze of publicity?” Peters asked the officials. “A life could be ruined in the very brief time it would take for the news to leak out.’

That was precisely what had happened to Ewa Klobukowska. The Polish sprinter, who had been a member of the winning 4 x 100 metres team at the previous Olympics, looked like a woman when you removed the towel but she didn’t under the microscope. She passed in Budapest. But in Kiev, at the 1967 European Cup, the six doctors reporting said that Klobukowska had “one chromosome too many to be declared a woman for the purposes of athletic competition”. It was a sad case; a distraught Klobukowska was stripped of her Olympic and other athletics medals. It was conceded that she was one of the six women in a thousand who seem female in every way, but whose chromosomes are anomalous. Most men have XY chromosomes; most women XX. Hers was the rare XXY genotype. Critics said the test was examining the wrong factor, and it was cruel. Now Peters proposed a fail-safe plan to protect women on her team. Any athlete who failed the sex test would be rushed to the isolation ward of a hospital, and the press would be told that she had developed a highly contagious disease. The melodramatic British plan did not have to be put into play.

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Not “a real woman”

Peters was not the only one who had been wary of the chromosome sex test. From the start, there were outcries against it. On many counts. There still are. The test is expensive in money and time, and in the psychological stress it puts on female athletes. The American sports psychologist Thomas Tutko was one of the first to point out the underlying message of the sex test: “It’s a way of saying, ‘If you’re this good at sport, you can’t be a real woman’.”

That the test is an unnecessary indignity has even been recognised by some Olympic officials. As early as 1975, the American representative on the IOC’s medical committee, Daniel Hanley, derided sex testing as “an expensive over-reaction to a remote possibility.”

The controversy continues. In 1986, a detailed article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by a geneticist, Albert de la Chappelle, of the department of medical genetics at the University of Helsinki, questioned the fairness and even the validity of the tests. “Neither sex chromatin nor gynaecological examination is suitable for screening purposes,” he said. “The present screening method is both inaccurate and discriminatory in that it excludes women who should be allowed to participate.” These are the six women in a thousand who look like women, think they are women, and whose body composition, strength and muscle seem entirely female – but who fail the test because they have Y chromosomes.”

The sex test is done with a swab or with a hank of hair. What they are looking for is Barr bodies, which are the genetic difference that results from men having XY chromosomes and women having XX. Men have no Barr bodies; women have them in 20 to 50 per cent of their cell nuclei. A few women, such as Klobukowska, have the XX Barr bodies but they also have a Y chromosome. De la Chappell concluded that they were being unfairly “denied a career in sports”. The JAMA editorial called for an end to the tests. “Eliminating screening would probably have little or no effect” on who won the championships, said the JAMA, “and it might restore a few personal dignities.”

[See also: From the NS archive: August the Fourth]

Indeed, if there were competitors who should be barred because they had an unfair advantage, the test was failing to spot them. A hormonal imbalance called adrenal hyperplasia does give one woman in 5,000 the shape and muscular strength of a man; such women have female genitalia and they would pass the chromatin test.

Ever since they talked their way into the Olympics, women have been medically examined far more frequently than men. In 1925, the Olympic Medical Sub-Commission decided that women’s “special functions” and “special organisation” required “carefully chosen” events, and these had to be “reduced considerably” in comparison with events for men. There were also clothing regulations “to prevent regrettable exhibitions”. It is the psychological message – the demeaning subtext – of these and the present sex tests which have caused so much dismay.

The sex test is the pass card of organised sport. It is not, like the pass card of South Africa, intended as an instrument of evil, but it does keep women in their place. In South Africa, the pass card not only allowed the government to keep tabs on the underclass, it also communicated the message to black people that they were an underclass, that they were under the control of the “bas” and that there was something so suspicious about them that they required watching. As women don’t need a special card in other walks of life, the sex test obliquely tells women that they are second-class citizens in the sportsworld, and that there is something worrying, something suspicious, perhaps even unnatural, about women doing well at sport

Those who pass are issued with a certificate of femininity so that they need not take the test again and again. Female athletes bring their certificates with them whenever they go to a major competition to compete.

Many athletes have admitted that the prospect of the test has frightened them. Most are still in adolescence, such as Debbie Meyer, at an age when personal insecurity is frequent. More than one coach has wondered if it is the psychological barrier of the sex test rather than any lack of speed and muscle that keeps women from running the four-minute mile – when times in the 1,500 metres show clearly that they have the ability.

Women do excel at those sports which are not considered to be particularly masculine or masculising. They now outride men at the top levels of equestrian sport, for instance. Yet what is innately female about riding a horse? Nothing surely. It takes enormous athleticism: strength in the thighs, and the courage to jump fences and speed forward in a sport that is known for spills and injury. Equestrian sport has always been expensive (horses eat a lot; so do trainers), hence it has attracted riders of high social status, rich enough to afford the sport. Princess Anne was no exception in this respect. And as cute little girls love ponies, women who ride well are not made to put their womanhood in question. Hence they can win the world championship and the competition at Badminton, as they have, even though they compete against men.

Are women scared to run faster than men lest their femininity come under suspicion? Ten years ago, a top female athlete muttered that it was unfeminine for a woman to run the 100 metres faster than 11 seconds. Now women have done it; but not that one. And perhaps some woman who could run even faster dares not. Would the roughly 10 per cent difference between the male and female record be diminished even more, be overcome, if women didn’t have that psychological worry too? ls it this which keeps them from throwing further, and from swimming faster and further than men, as often as they could?

[See also: From the NS archive: Coming up to Orwell]

Anomalies and masquerades

Which is not to say there have been no anomalies or masquerades. A few unscrupulous men, probably in cahoots with unscrupulous governments, have pretended to be female athletes. But more often it has been a question of sad cases – a hermaphrodite ruled against, or individuals who were genetically male but had reason to believe they were female, and others who simply very much wished they were.

In 1938, the German high-jumper Dora Ratjen, who set a world record of 5ft 5.75in, was found to have both male and female sexual organs. She was banned, and although she had lived as a woman previously, she changed her name to Hermann. Two Frenchwomen in the 1946 European silver medal-winning relay team later were found to be living as Frenchmen. Claire had become Pierre; Lea was Leon. Whether they had pretended to be women or whether they were later pretending to be men was not absolutely clear.

The downhill skier Erika Schinegger was found that her chromosomes were down in the first year of the tests. It was said that her male sex organs had been hidden inside her body since birth. With sublime self-possession, Erika later changed her name to Eric, married, and became a father.

For the Polish sprinter Klobukowska, however, the discovery had been only tragic. In 1980, elderly Stella Olsen, the former Stella Walsh, was shot dead during a robbery in Cleveland, Ohio, an innocent bystander. The autopsy revealed that the 1932 Olympic 100 metre sprint champion, who had won 42 US national titles, had male sex organs.

The most notorious case involved two Russian sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, who dropped out of world competition just before the sex tests were to be introduced. Because of the timing of their retirement, it was presumed in the West that they had something to hide. The rumour was that the muscular sisters were really the Press brothers.

Tamara Press had had an impressive career: she held the world shot-put record from 1959 to 1965, and the world discus record from 1960 to 1965. At the 1960 Olympics, she won gold at the shot put and was the silver medallist in the discus; in 1964 she won gold in both events. Irina, two years younger, was the finest hurdler in the world. In 1960, she became the Olympic 80 metres hurdles champion; in 1964, she scored gold at pentathlon with a world record of 5,246 points. The sisters had racked up a total of five gold medals in two Olympics.

There is no proof that the Presses’ retirement at the ages of 29 and 27 was in any way connected with the introduction of the sex tests. There are dozens of reasons why the sisters might have retired: after so many years at the top in sports that required arduous training, they may have had enough or simply have gone stale. The sisters were close; if one withdrew, it was understandable that the other did too. And there might have been family reasons, or injury problems.

Yet maybe the Press sisters really were the Press brothers. The point is that we do not know. To this day, they claim to be sisters. Tamara Press, who turned 50 in May 1987, lives by herself in the Russian Lenin Hills in a three-room apartment. She has a PhD in education, holds a high-level administrative job in recreation and has found time to write two memoirs. It is said that Tamara Press swims regularly at a local pool.

[See also: From the NS archive: No end of blame]

The younger of the two, Irina Press, also has a PhD. in sports education. She lives in two rooms, likes to attend first nights at the theatre, and works in the grounds of Moscow’s oldest stadium, as chief of sports education at the Dynamo Sports Society. Irina takes some of the credit for the success of Dynamo’s athletes. The two sisters, I am told, are great friends although they live their own lives. Twice a month they run three or four kilometres together in a city park. This is one Westerner who would like to go and have a talk and look through the family photograph album.

Far more commonplace in world history is the fact of women disguising themselves as men: Joan of Arc; 17th-century foot soldiers; ordinary refugees trying to avoid rape; not to mention Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It, and Vita Sackville-West on her very bohemian Paris sojourn. Women have usually disguised themselves as men to gain autonomy – safety on the street, the right to earn a living, perhaps also the right to participate in sport.

In fact, the very first sex test in Olympic sport, way back in ancient Greece, was instituted to keep women from disguising themselves as men. Athletes and trainers had to pass naked as they arrived at the ancient Olympics lest any women sneak in. It is surely unlikely that women have suddenly stopped masquerading as men. In some endurance sports – long-distance swimming certainly, the marathon and equestrian sport (which has both single-sex and mixed-sex competition) possibly, and others – women even have a yet-to-be-properly-tapped physical advantage. There are no sex tests for men. When there are more women for coaches to choose from, will they sneak a few on to the men’s team?

It would be an extreme and unlovely use of women for national pride; it would call for a huge sacrifice: the woman would have to become a man. It is unlikely that many could live a false life from childhood ever after – for unless one covered one’s tracks thoroughly, someone would find out. It is equally unlikely the Press sisters could have sprung grown from the head of some sports scientist. Surely, Tamara and Irina grew up somewhere. Someone remembers their childhood.

It is, however unlikely, perfectly possible that in the future women could be sneaked on to men’s teams. Indeed, in the early years of the century, many of the top male athletes were no more fit and no more muscular than strong country women. Even now one finds some hefty rural Amazons about. It is entirely possible that some of the great purportedly male Olympians of the 20th century were – and are? – women.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)