“Does that athlete really belong here?” is the underlying question in all gender-related controversies in sports. Most commonly, the question is asked when an athlete competing as a female is suspected of actually being male. Or when an athlete is suspected of being gay or is openly gay, especially in team sports where “locker room issues” may be raised. A couple of times, the question has also been asked with regard to transgender females competing against women. However, in any case, raising questions regarding an athlete’s gender has always been a sensitive matter. And for this reason, governing bodies of sports leagues have experienced great difficulty in standardizing guidelines for handling such controversies.
Gender verification, for example, has been a hot topic in several Olympics and athletics competitions because of allegations that male athletes occasionally attempt to compete as females in order to gain an unfair advantage. As a result, various attempts to institute mandatory gender identification tests for females have been made, but with limited success. One such attempt took place in 1992, when the International Olympic Committee mandated all female athletes to undergo the SRY gene test. The requirement was later abolished, however, due to the test’s lack of conclusiveness and because of complaints from various sectors.
To this day, how gender controversies should be dealt with remains a very thorny issue. Here are ten instances that illustrate just how controversial such cases can be:
10. Stella Walasiewicz (Track and Field)
Known as “Stella” at the time, Stanisława Walasiewicz was a phenomenal track and field athlete from Poland. In her career, she won 4 Women’s World Games gold medals (1930 – 3 golds, 1934 – 1 gold) and 1 Olympic gold medal (1932), all for running. In fact, Stanisława set over a hundred running records of various types, including 18 world records. However, she will also be remembered for being involved in perhaps the earliest known gender controversy in sports. It unraveled when Stanisława was killed in a robbery in 1980, and an autopsy revealed that she possessed male genitalia despite her birth record stating she was female. When this became known to the public, calls were made for Stella’s achievements to be stricken off the records. But these did not prosper, and Stella is still, to this day, considered by most Poles to be a sporting hero.
9. Erika Schinegger (Skiing)
In 1967, Erika Schinegger, an Austrian skier, was preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics after having won the gold medal for women’s downhill skiing at the 1966 World Championship when a medical test was ordered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The test found that Erika was actually male, with male internal sex organs. Disqualified from participation in the Olympics, Schinegger eventually decided to live life as a man and changed his name to “Erik.” In fact, Erik went on to get married and become a father. Furthermore, in 1988, in a televised ceremony, Erik delivered his 1966 gold medal to the race’s second place finisher.
8. Ewa Kłobukowska (Track and Field)
Polish sprinter Ewa Kłobukowska was, in 1967, the first athlete to ever fail a gender test. By that time, she had won an Olympic gold medal at the 4×100-meter relay during the 1964 Summer Olympics and had passed a gender inspection for the 1966 European Championships. However, a year later, Ewa was declared ineligible for the European Cup track and field competition for women. The general understanding of Ewa’s situation was that she had been born with testes, but that these were removed to give way for estrogen treatments. As a result of the finding, the Polish athlete was disqualified from all future competitions, her name expunged from all official records. Nevertheless, the humiliation that she underwent is attributed as the reason why gender test results since then have been kept secret. Quite surprisingly, however, in 1968, Ewa became pregnant and bore a son.
7. Chloie Jonsson (Crossfit)
Personal trainer Chloie Jonsson was born male but underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 2006. The procedure allowed her to be recognized as a woman in California, all her records, including her birth certificate, being changed to reflect that she was female. However, when she tried to enter the 2013 CrossFit Games, she was disallowed by the organizers, who insisted that entrants had to participate according to their birth gender. In retaliation, Jonsson filed a $2.5 million suit against CrossFit for “discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and unfair competition.” The case is ongoing.
6. Renée Richards (Tennis)
Born in New York in 1934, Richard Raskind excelled as a football wide receiver, a baseball pitcher, a tennis player, and a swimmer for the Horace Mann School. In fact, the New York Yankees even scouted Richard for his baseball skills, but he decided to maintain his focus on tennis, which eventually led to him being named captain of the Yale University men’s tennis team. However, in college, Raskind began to crossdress, naming his female alter-ego “Renée,” French for “reborn.” Nevertheless, he still entered several US Opens (1953, 1955-57, 1960) as a male and eventually had an unsuccessful marriage with a woman. The couple even had a son together, but in 1975, Richard still decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery. A year later, Renée tried to enter the US Open women’s division, but was denied, causing her to file suit for gender discrimination. She won the case, and that allowed her to compete in five more US Opens (1977-1981), but this time as a woman. Renée’s most successful outing was reaching the women’s doubles final in 1977.
5. Dora Ratjen (Track and Field)
When Dora Ratjen was born in Erichshof, Germany, the midwife reportedly announced, “It’s a boy!” but within five minutes corrected herself saying, “It’s a girl, after all.” Dora was then raised female, and eventually ended up excelling in sports as a girl. That eventually led to Dora breaking the world record for the high jump at the 1938 European Athletics Championships. Then, in 1939, Dorothy Tyler broke that record, only to be told moments later that Ratjen had once again beaten the record. Tyler then claimed, “She’s not a woman; she’s a man,” and further research revealed that Dora was indeed a male waiter named “Hermann Ratjen.” Time magazine later reported in 1966 that Dora, then living as a man named “Heinz,” confessed that “he had been forced by the Nazis to pose as a woman ‘for the sake of the honor and glory of Germany.'”
4. Aprilia Manganang (Volleyball)
During the recently concluded Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), Philippine delegation leader Julian Camacho filed a protest questioning the gender of a women’s volleyball player from Indonesia. Days later, SEA Games organizers threw out the protest, saying that a medical committee had laid the matter to rest. Nevertheless, the player in question, Aprilia Santini Manganang, still had to deal with loud boos most of the times that she played. That didn’t deter Aprilia, however, as she led her team to a bronze medal and topped the individual statistics among all female players. “What can I say, but I’m very thankful to this issue having come up as this gives me extra motivation to do well and to perform even better,” Manganang said.
3. Caster Semenya (Track and Field)
Hailing from South Africa, Caster Semenya took the gold medal in the women’s 800-meter and 500-meter races at the 2009 African Junior Championships. In so doing, she improved her 800-meter personal best by seven seconds and also set the world-leading time for that year. Then, just three hours before Caster took gold in the 800-meter final at the 2009 World Championships, news broke about how the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had asked Caster to undergo a gender test. Widespread criticism of the IAAF followed shortly thereafter. Important South African leaders, politicians, and commentators characterized the gender test request as “racist” and a violation of Semenya’s human rights, while Caster herself said, “God made me the way I am, and I accept myself.” The results of the gender test were never made public due to confidentiality laws, but Semenya did run again as a woman, winning silver medals at the World Championships in 2011 and the Summer Olympics in 2012.
2. Fallon Fox (Mixed Martial Arts)
Fallon Fox has been highly controversial since March of 2013, when she came out as transgender after having won her first two MMA fights. One of her critics was Matt Mitrione, an MMA fighter, who criticized Fox and called her a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak.” His remarks caused the UFC to suspend and fine Mitrione. Later, UFC women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey stated she wasn’t willing to fight Fox, whom she claimed enjoyed an unfair physical advantage for having “the same bone structure a man has.” Fallon’s case was thrust even more prominently into the spotlight after a lopsided 2014 fight left her opponent, Tamikka Brents, with a concussion, seven staples to her head, and an orbital bone fracture. Brents went on to say, “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night.” However, Fox still continues to be allowed to fight women as she builds on her 5-1 professional MMA record.
1. Pinki Pramanik (Track and Field)
Indian track athlete Pinki Pramanik was an Asian sports superstar who won golds in the Asian Games (2005) and the South Asian Games (2006 – 3 golds). However, in 2012, a female friend alleged that Pinki had raped her, leading officials to order gender tests. Pramanik, meanwhile, claimed that she was being blackmailed. The final verdict was that Pramanik was a “male pseudo-hermaphrodite . . . incapable of having penetrative sex.” Nevertheless, the charges against Pinki were eventually dropped, and in September of 2014, she was reported to be aiming to run again.