Reports of new IAAF rules on athletes with intersex variations

There is agreement that men have a performance advantage over women in athletics. However, there is no scientific consensus that women with intersex traits have any such performance advantage, or any consistent, non-arbitrary advantage at all. Data produced by the IAAF is contested, and its new rules appear to be selectively implemented: affecting only a subset of events where it claims there is some marginal performance advantage, and only a few intersex variations.

The IAAF are singling out Caster Semenya for special treatment, but in doing so they have also managed to implicate all intersex women. Those intersex women who are the subjects of the reported IAAF regulations, are not cheating. Nor have they changed legal status, (voluntarily) modified their bodies (though the IAAF demands such modifications), sought to transition, or sought medical intervention to transition. They have not “come out” after a process of introspection and identity formation. Their physical characteristics have often only been discovered in the course of testing to facilitate competition, a form of testing that itself predicated on the belief that “deviation” from culturally-specific gender norms is a barrier to competition.

The brunt of the argument has been brought to bear on women from the global South, particularly racialised women from resource-poor regions who have not been subjected to medical violence in order to make their bodies more typically female. The impact is thus to reinforce a perceived necessity for medicalisation to avoid othering, but this is a flawed and pious argument. It suggests that escaping unnecessary medical intervention is itself deviant. The medicalisation of women athletes, including subjecting them to clitoridectomies and labioplasties in order to compete, is part of the same medical model that subjects infants and children to those interventions. None of this is warranted or necessary. It all violates human rights.

Reports of a new third category, risk othering all intersex women, irrespective of their testosterone levels or androgen sensitivity. This gives the lie to occasional medical claims that surgery eliminates stigma and discrimination. On the contrary, different treatment, whether through surgery or though newly imposed biological classifications, is itself discriminatory.

Some sources

Carpenter M. The ‘Normalization’ of Intersex Bodies and ‘Othering’ of Intersex Identities in Australia. Jouornal of Bioethical Inquiry. 2018 (forthcoming);15(4). DOI: 10.1007/s11673-018-9855-8

Jordan-Young RM, Sonksen PH, Karkazis K. Sex, health, and athletes. BMJ [Internet]. 2014 Apr 28 [cited 2014 Oct 22];348(apr28 9):g2926–g2926. Available from:

Karkazis K, Jordan-Young R. The Powers of Testosterone: Obscuring Race and Regional Bias in the Regulation of Women Athletes. Feminist Formations [Internet]. 2018 Apr [cited 2018 Apr 25]; Available from:

Organisation Intersex International Australia. Shadow Report submission to the Human Rights Committee on the situation of intersex people in Australia [Internet]. 2017 Aug [cited 2018 Apr 9]. Report No.: INT/CCPR/CSS/AUS/28771. Available from:

Sőnksen PH, Bavington LD, Boehning T, Cowan D, Guha N, Holt R, et al. Hyperandrogenism controversy in elite women’s sport: an examination and critique of recent evidence. Br J Sports Med [Internet]. 2018 Jan 19 [cited 2018 Jan 25];bjsports-2017-098446. Available from: