Chromosome testing

In 1968 the International Olympic Committee introduced chromosome testing to its Summer Olympics. It tested for the Y-chromosome to suss out “males” from “females”. Some, rightly, found it humiliating.1 

The policy was abolished because it was designed to be (essentially) a gender “verification” test. Which it failed, because, well, that’s not how gender works. In the process of one of the dozen or so shameful footnotes to Olympic Games, it did have at least one positive outcome. It did introduce a whole lot of us to the myriad genetic variations comprising we human beings. And recognizing that fact, it got some of us to thinking.

Could chromosomal testing of athletes for the Olympics work? Or rather, under what circumstances could the chromosomal testing of athletes – perhaps even the compulsory testing – be part of the basic framework in which the games are conducted such that debate on the topic were merely academic and not, as it is, merely academic.

I propose the following.

Athletes are allowed to select one category in which they would like to compete based on any pair of chromosomes they have. Some example chromosome pairs include the following XX, XY (equivalent to YX), YY. Suppose an athlete was chromosomally tested and found to have an XX, they could only select to participate and be ranked in the XX category. Suppose an athlete tested and was found to have XXY, such an athlete could participate in both the XX and the XY category. Suppose an athlete was found to have XXYY, they could compete in all three aforementioned categories: XX, XY, YY.

I think this helps to remove stigma surrounding the relationships between chromosomes and “gender” (and “sex” while we’re at it). It does this by (1) recognizing an objective biological reality, (2) allowing an athlete to elect their peers, (3) does not prejudice rankings by saying one “does not belong” within a certain range (as weight in many sports (e.g., boxing) does).

And while the author at this point is stumped thinking of any three combinations beyond those already listed, I think any future combinations could easily be incorporated into the schema.

Anticipated objections.

  1. Won’t one category measure “better” than the other over a given sport/dimension? (E.g., sport: swimming; dimension: time.) Probably, but as with any system in which there are at least two things, chances are those two things are very rarely “equal” anyway you stack it up. But the point of chromosomal testing (and the current “gendered” categories currently held) is not so that there is equality along the categories. Instead, it is meant to ensure equality within the category. Beyond the true parsimony of true randomness (flip a coin, that’s the category you’re in), I contend that this is about as simple, as equitable, and as just a system as could be developed. Simple: biological reality. Equitable: choose your peers. Just: one belongs in one’s category. 
  2. It gives an unfair advantage to those with an extra chromosome from which to select their category. No more unfair an advantage than any other genetic variation. Sure, maybe a little different, but just a little. While I suspect in reality whatever such genetic “privilege” confers upon such an individual and their circumstances are surely minimal to negative, we can expect individuals and their circumstances to be sufficiently rare that this system could adequately incorporate them as athletes in aforementioned categories or sufficiently rare as to be judged on a case by case basis (though that maybe gets into more uncomfortable territory). We could, should it come to that, perhaps consider statistically monitoring athletes with multiple chromosomal pairings to see if they “outperform” their singular chromosomal pairing compatriots. Again, that could happen, but that could also just be one of the three ways it could go (over perform, under perform. perform at expectations).
  3. Upheaval, madness, why mess with the program? Why mess with the program? Because we studied the program, we looked and pondered and saw how it worked and how sometimes it didn’t and we learned more about who and what we human beings are in at least one mostly-objective way and maybe we could use that to enable each other and not to dismantle or discourage one another. Maybe recognizing that we have little its of genetic materials in just about each every nook and cranny in our bodies and maybe that can help give us some simple “standard” way to categorize people in a way that matters to the task at hand (rather than to satiate some historical (out-dated?) construct). Maybe it’s just easy and you don’t have to show your genitalia to anybody you don’t want to (and/or who doesn’t want to), something we apparently have to say out loud these days to some people.

Conclusion: chromosomal testing could be used to create categories for grouping athletes in the Olympic Games that is simple, equitable, and just by recognizing biological reality, allowing athletes to elect peers, and including all within their respective categories.


  1. This did not stop the practice from continuing to be performed until about 1992 (and maybe a smidge into 1996).