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Transgender and Intersex Olympians

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Gender-confused Olympian Dora Ratjen.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has expressly committed itself to fairness to athletes; regardless of race, nationality, or gender. Although the initial modern Olympic Games were men-only affairs, almost all of the Olympic Sports now have men's and women's teams. Naturally, because of physiological differences between the sexes, it is fairer to have separate teams than mixed ones.

Obviously, men competing as women would be unfair. However, gender issues are not always so clear cut. Dr Alfred Kinsey discovered a whole spectrum of human sexual orientation, as opposed to a division between homosexuality and heterosexuality. In terms of gender, too, the divisions are not always clear-cut; some people are born in between male and female, and their lives are unusually complicated because of this. There are also those individuals who are apparently of one gender, but feel that they belong to the other gender. As a result of such gender issues, there have been several instances in the Olympics where medals have been won, and world records set, across what might be regarded as gender lines. The athletes involved were all talented people – most had no intention of fooling or defrauding anyone.

In the early 1920s and 30s there were two cases which concerned IOC officials: the English shot putter and discus thrower, Mary Weston, and the Czechoslovakian runner of the 100 metres, Zdeneka Koubkova. Both underwent gender reassignment surgery in the 30s and became legally Mark Weston and Zdenek Koubkov respectively. Their records as women athletes still remain.

The Berlin 1936 Olympics

At the Berlin 1936 Olympics, there were at least two athletes competing who were gender confused. Dora Ratjen competed for Germany as a woman high-jumper, and Stella Walsh (born Stanislawa Walasiewicz), a 100 metres runner, competed for Poland.

Dora Ratjen

Dora Ratjen was born on 20 November, 1918 in Erichshof near Bremen. The baby was born at home and the midwife, after having announced a son to the father, minutes later said no, it was a daughter. So Dora began life and lived as a shy, introverted girl with three older sisters. At the age of 10 or 11, Dora realised he was male, but was too shy to announce this to the family. So he went on appearing one way and feeling another way inside his head. Because of the time he lived in, he ended up in the Bund Deutscher Maedel1 and various sporting clubs at school. Training for the 1936 Olympics, Ratjen was chosen to be on the women's high jump team, excluding Gretal Bergmann, a Jewish athlete. Ratjen's team mates laughed at the shyness of a 17-year old country girl who refused to shower with the others, but none of them suspected his condition. Ratjen only placed fourth, so did not get a medal in 1936.

Dora was outed as a man in 1938, after having won gold in the European Championships. The police received word about a man dressed as a woman on a train. He was approached at Magdeburg train station, and asked to show his identification papers. He ended up at the police station and was interviewed. The police, realising the problems of paper work and his worldwide fame, gave him new identity papers with the name of Heinrich and allowed him to be a worker for the Reich. He said he was relieved of the burden of living a double life. Of course, he was forbidden from competing in any further sporting events and returned the medal he had won at the European Championships. Despite the Nazi's usual insistence on conformity, he survived the Second World War. Eventually, he took over his parents' pub in his hometown and throughout the remainder of his life refused all press interviews. He died on 22 April, 2008.

Stella Walsh

Stella Walsh was born in Poland in 1911, with the name of Stanislawa Walasiewicz. Her parents emigrated to the United States when she was an infant, and she grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She was active in a Polish sports club, and won numerous metals in running events in America and in Europe. Since she wasn't 21, however, she could not become an American citizen. She opted to remain a Polish citizen, and won a gold medal in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In Berlin in 1936, she won the silver medal for the 100-metre dash losing to Helen Stephens, who represented the US Team. Helen Stephens was subjected to genital inspection and determined to be female. This was ironic in terms of the later discovery about Walsh.

Stella Walsh returned to the United States and continued her amateur sporting career there, appearing at various championships before and after the Second World War. In 1947 she finally accepted American citizenship and was married to the boxer Neil Olson for a short time. She ran her last race in 1951, and was inducted into the US Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. At the age of 69 she was accidentally killed in an attempted robbery in Cleveland. The subsequent autopsy discovered male genitalia and that she had both XX and XY chromosomes. Stella Walsh's case made the IOC gradually drop the gender determination tests.

Iron Curtain Phenomenon

Tamara and Irina Press were sisters born in Kharkov, the Ukraine. Tamara was born in 1937, and Irina was born in 1939. They both trained at the Voluntary Sports Societies of the Soviet Union. Tamara won gold medals at the 1960 Rome Games and the 1964 Tokyo Games for the Shot Put. She also won the silver medal for the Discus Throw in the Rome Games. Irina won a gold medal at the 1960 Games for the 80-metre Hurdles and for the Pentathlon at the 1964 Tokyo Games. The pair set 26 world records in the 1960s. Their careers ended when sex verification was reinstituted in 1966 at the European Athletics Championships. Soviet officials reported that the sisters had both returned to the Ukraine to take care of their ailing mother. There was considerable discussion at the time that the Press sisters might have been male or hermaphrodites2. Regarding the Olympics, sex verification started systematically in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble.

Ewa Klobukowska

Ewa Klobukowska was born in Warsaw in 1946. She won a gold medal for Poland in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games for the 4×100-metre relay, and a bronze medal in the 100-metre dash. She was the first Olympic athlete to fail a gender test. In 1967 she took an early defective form of the chromatin test3, and it registered that she had 'one chromosome too many'. This brought her career as an international athlete to a close. Perhaps the test was mis-administered or misinterpreted, because she became pregnant and bore a son in 1968.

Heidi Krieger

Heidi Krieger was born in 1966 in East Berlin. She won many Shot Put events in Europe, and would have competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but was prevented from doing so as East Germany took part in the boycott initiated by the Soviet Union. She found out that she had been unknowingly doped with anabolic steroids from the age of 16 by her coaches, and resigned from her athletic career in 1990. She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1997 and took the name Andreas. Andreas Krieger is married to East German swimmer Ute Krause, who was also a victim of the East German sports drugs scandal.

Male or Female? How to Address Gender Reassignment

While children who are born neither male nor female are rare, one child in every 1,500 has what is classified as a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD). Sometimes this takes the form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which causes the person to produce too much testosterone. Naturally that would cause the person to have an unfair advantage in some sports, and also might manifest itself in both external and internal male sexual organs. Whether these people are brought up as male or female depends vastly on their circumstances and culture. Doctors are not keen on surgeries to simplify the decision, as they may choose wrongly and make the individual's life more difficult should they identify with the other gender. These patients are classed as 'intersex'4. There are also other people who may not have any sexual or hormonal abnormalities, but identify intensely with the opposite gender. These people might decide to make the transition to the opposite gender, for example by having hormone therapy and/or surgery, and are often referred to as transsexual.

Avoiding Gender Discrimination for Athletes

It is still unfair in that only female athletes are tested. But the IOC is very active in persuading all the international sporting groups to follow their lead in this matter. Hopefully, this will avoid subjecting athletes to embarrassing and imperfect tests needlessly. This is what happened to the South African runner Caster Semenya in August, 2009. The International Association of Athletic Federations ordered her to undergo gender determination testing. This organisation declared that she was able to compete as a woman in July, 2010.

In order to avoid unfair gender discrimination the IOC will allow transsexual athletes to compete as their reassigned gender if they:

  • have undergone sexual reassignment surgeries
  • have undergone hormone replacement therapy for two years
  • are legally recognised as their reassigned gender in the country they are representing in the Olympics

Indeed, for the 2012 London Olympics Delia Johnson, a transsexual, has been named as Britain's Olympics Ambassador for Transsexuals. In her capacity as Accreditation Coordinator, she will check people's credentials, but as the Ambassador for Transsexuals, she will help make transsexual visitors feel welcome at the Games.

1The German League of Girls - a faction of the Hitler Youth.2Hermaphrodites have a mixture of of both male and female primary and secondary sexual organs.3A molecular test that confirms the presence or absence of sex chromatin, and the presence or absence of the fluorescent portion of the Y chromosome.4'Intersex' is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.

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