Gender Lines “Tested”: Rose Eveleth Examines Gender Rules in Sports

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“Tested” podcast cover image: Runners on a track with the word “Tested” in a white block.
July 9, 2024

In sports, few issues stir as much debate and scrutiny as the rules surrounding gender verification in women's athletics. Rose Eveleth, the creator of the thought-provoking podcast “Tested” and 2022 New America National Fellow, has dedicated years to unraveling the complexities and injustices embedded in these regulations. Their exploration comes at a pivotal moment, coinciding with a surge in visibility and success for women's sports globally, and amidst ongoing challenges and controversies.

As we approach the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, Eveleth's insights compel us to confront how these rules shape perceptions of fairness and inclusion in sports, urging us to reconsider the boundaries and biases that persist in athletic competition. The “Tested” podcast is set to hit the airwaves on July 15th. Ahead of the podcast’s launch, we sat down with Rose Eveleth to discuss the profound implications of “Tested” and its illumination of the intersection of identity, equality, and sporting achievement in today's world.

Your new podcast “Tested” explores the long and contentious history surrounding gender verification and fairness in women's sports. What inspired you to delve into this often overlooked history now?

I've been following this story for over 10 years, and pitching it for almost eight (a slightly embarrassing thing to admit) so the most honest answer of “why now” is that I finally got someone to fund and distribute the project! (Huge thanks to New America who helped keep me going while I was trying to find a home for the show.)

And the podcast’s distribution happened to come at an auspicious time and a really interesting moment in sports, and in particular in women's sports. The Olympics are right around the corner. Women's leagues in the United States are booming, and breaking attendance and viewership records left and right. What people watching all these things might not realize is that there has been this century-long battle over what female athletes are supposed to look like, sound like, and be like.

Runners Christine Mboma and Maximila Imali are the focal points of this story. Since this is a sensitive subject, what steps do you take to protect their privacy and safety while making the podcast?

Ideally, the women impacted by these regulations would be able to remain anonymous, and only become public names if they choose to. But in reality, that doesn’t always happen. Because of the way that these policies have changed over the last 15 years, many athletes wind up being outed against their will. For example, the Kenyan national team dropped Maximila “Max” Imali and one other runner from its World Relays championship team after the International Association of Athletics Federations’s introduction of new rules regulating so-called “differences of sexual development (DSD) athletes.” And just before the Olympics in 2021, Christine Mboma was forced to switch from the 400-meter, her primary event at the time, to the 200-meter because of restrictions limiting the participation of DSD athletes in middle-distance events like the 400 Anybody paying attention to track and field regulations would know that the DSD rule would be the only reason she'd make that switch, which essentially outed her as an impacted athlete. And in 2023, those rules would change again, and restrict DSD athlete participation in all distances.

I met Christine and Max through contacts that I've been developing for years now, reporting on this topic. And one of the first things I did when I spoke with them was to talk about what was most important to them. If they were going to participate in this series and share their stories, what did they want the world to know? What did they hope came out of it? What were they worried about? I did the same with all the other women I spoke with, both on and off the record. Many of them have been subjected to really brutal comments online and in the press about their bodies, and agreeing to do any kind of press can potentially open up a door to more of the same.

I thought a lot about how to try and minimize that kind of blowback, while also introducing listeners to their experiences. I'm really grateful that the women in this series trusted me to handle their stories.

Throughout your research for this podcast, what were some of the most surprising or unexpected discoveries you made about the history of sex testing in elite sports?

Oh my goodness, so many things. I think the fact that is probably the most surprising to most people, and it certainly was to me, is that between 1968 and 1999 every single woman who competed at the Olympics had to go through a sex test. Women who passed got a little card called a "certificate of femininity" that they had to bring with them and show every time they wanted to compete. This process has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, and has uncovered—as far as we know—exactly zero “masquerading males” trying to sneak into the games to win medals.

What it did do, however, was kick women out of the games who had some variation in their chromosomes—and who learned about that variation at the Olympics, right before they were set to compete. Those women were, in general, told to fake an injury, and disappear quietly.

It's hard for me to even imagine what this would be like: arriving at the Olympics, the pinnacle of your athletic career, only to be told by a scientist that you were actually not a woman and that you had to leave. And this happened for over 30 years.

As the creator and host of "Tested," what do you hope listeners will take away from this exploration of women's sports history and the ongoing challenges faced by athletes like Mboma and Imali?

My hope for this series is twofold.

The first is that people listening to this will realize that human biology is complicated and variable—and that's not a bad thing. The world is a really amazing place full of all kinds of incredible diversity. And in many cases, especially in sports, we celebrate that diversity.

My second hope is that people remember that conversations about this kind of biological variation are not theoretical or philosophical—they involve real people with hopes and dreams and families. I think it can be really easy to get lost in the weeds on this topic and debate percentages, performance times, blood testosterone levels, genes, and a million other little things, and forget that we're talking about humans who are directly impacted by these conversations. If you approach this topic from a sense of excitement and wonder, and a focus on the humans at hand, I think you wind up coming to pretty different conclusions than if you come at it another way.

The 2024 Paris Olympic Games are fast approaching, and the games have historically served as a platform for promoting the ideals of fairness and inclusion. How do you see the ongoing debates surrounding gender verification aligning with or challenging these principles in the context of the 2024 Olympics?

Sports has, especially in the last 20 years or so, really tried to have its cake and eat it too on this front. Sports authorities and organizers talk a big game about the ways in which sports is this important cultural space that operates as a force for good in the world—bridging gaps and bringing people together. World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, writes on its website that “athletics is the world’s sport – nothing is more simple or universal. This means accepting a global responsibility to use the power and reach of athletics to make a positive difference.” The Olympics is guided by the principles of the “Olympic Movement,” the primary of which is “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world.”

“Human biology is complicated and variable—and that's not a bad thing.”

At the same time, these sports organizations seem to want to be exempt from having to update their view on certain elements of culture and society that are inconvenient to them. Throughout the history of sex testing, sports officials have argued that while sex and gender might be complicated in the real world, sports were different. Sports are binary and cannot be expected to change that frame of mind, even if society—and even science—does.

In my view, you cannot have this both ways. Sports can either be this completely separate space that refuses to participate in, and therefore have a say, in cultural change. Or, sports can be part of the real world and change as culture changes. Right now, I think we're seeing that rubber band stretched to its breaking point on this topic, and the question is which direction it's going to snap.

Looking past the Olympics, what do you foresee changing, or not changing, in the ongoing debate over gender verification in women's sports?

In some ways, reporting out this series made me both more and less hopeful for the future. Less hopeful because we've known about the variations in sex biology for decades and seem to be trapped in this strange kind of Groundhog Day loop—trying over and over again to find a clear, scientific way of drawing a line in the sand when one simply doesn’t exist. Lots of people I spoke with told me that until sports officials and the public are better educated about the realities of human biology, and all its variations, that we'll be stuck in this loop forever. At the same time, I think that we are entering into a new era of women's sports in which athletes (at least sometimes) are becoming more and more empowered to stand up to governing bodies and fight for their rights.

Sports are, in some ways, one of the last bastions of a really hard-line sex binary in our world. And as long as we divide sports rigidly, with two categories based on sex or gender, we're always going to wind up in tricky, difficult situations. Asking for that to change means asking for huge, powerful, extremely stubborn institutions to change a fundamental thing about how they view the world. And that's a big ask. But I don't think it's necessarily impossible.

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