Swipe to Navigate
Back to Multimedia

    By Ellis Cashmore

    [The background image shows a bronze of a female runner, probably from 520-500 BCE and possibly from Sparta, the only Greek
    city-state that provided girls with schooling, including physical education. Spartan women were allowed to compete in the Heraea games, which were held in honor of the goddess Hera.]


    Both sex and sports give joy, meaning and purpose to many people. Over the centuries, they’ve been potent motifs of art, mythology and culture. But they mix about as well as wine and vinegar. Sports were created by men, for men. Only very recently were women permitted to cycle, and play golf and tennis. Historically, their role was mainly restricted to watching and applauding. The question of sex became an issue only when women started playing sports with as much skill and determination as men. How authorities responded to this disruptive development changed the very character of sports. This timeline identifies the landmark developments that transformed sports.


    In ancient Greece, athletic competitions are held in honor of the god Zeus. The games are only open to men, and athletes compete in the nude to exhibit their toned and lubed bodies. The sexual element of the games is not lost on the Greeks: Homoeroticism and same-sex relationships are not uncommon among the athletes. Sports are associated with military training and the practice of ephebe involves mature men mentoring and training boys. Note that these relationships often have a sexual component.


    Women are warned against participating in sports, exercise and most physically demanding tasks, apart from housekeeping. Cultural historian Patricia Vertinsky notes, “Medical advice concerning exercise and physical activity came to reflect and perpetuate understandings about women’s ‘abiding sense of physical weakness’ and the unchangeable nature of her physical inferiority.” It's thought strenuous physical activity may result in virilization, i.e., the development of male physical characteristics, like muscle bulk, body hair and deep voice.


    American Didrikson Zaharias (1911–56) is a champion both in golf and in track and field. Her athletic prowess in itself makes her the subject of gossip. Some suspect she has a condition that causes her to develop masculine traits. Unfounded as the gossip is, it reflects the cultural norms of the time, which place a strong emphasis on traditional gender roles and expectations. Women who excel at traditionally male pursuits are called “mannish.”

  6. 1936: STELLA WALSH

    Moving with her parents from Poland to the USA, Stanisława Walasiewicz (1911–80), changes her name to Stella Walsh. Representing Poland, she is a medalist at the 1932 and 1936 Olympic games. Like her peer Didrikson, Walsh becomes the subject of rumor. After her death in 1980, an autopsy reveals that she has ambiguous genitalia, and it is still unclear whether she was biologically male or female.

  7. 1936: DORA RATJEN

    A German high jumper who competed as a female in the 1936 Olympics, Ratjen (1918-2008) later claims he is really a man and his name is Heinrich. He was forced to compete as a woman by Nazi officials. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduces mandatory gender testing for female athletes, aimed at ensuring that they are not actually male. This testing, which involves examining athletes’ genitals, becomes a controversial issue in subsequent decades.


    Born Robert Marshall Cowell (1918–2011), he was a racing driver, a fighter pilot and prisoner-of-war before having gender reassignment surgery in 1948. This was before more famous cases such as April Ashley and Christine Jorgensen. Returning to racing, Cowell is not allowed to compete against men. In her autobiography, Cowell states that she had a unique medical condition that meant she was essentially a woman in a man's body — possibly what we now call intersexuality (the condition of being intermediate between male and female).


    Responding to growing demands for some sort of sex testing, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, today known as World Athletics) introduces physical examinations of female competitors at the European Championships in Budapest in 1966. Two years later, the Summer Olympics use chromosomal testing to determine femaleness. Concerns about human rights violations, medical ethics and the lack of scientific consensus on defining sex in sports leads to a reevaluation of sex testing policies. The IAAF and IOC go on to suspend sex testing in 2011.


    Ewa Kłobukowska (born 1946) wins several medals for Poland at the Olympic Games and the European Athletics Championships. In 1967, a sex verification test in Kiev reveals an abnormality in her chromosomal makeup, later believed to be the result of a rare genetic condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). Individuals with AIS are typically genetically male (with XY chromosome) but have reduced or complete insensitivity to male sex hormones (androgens): They often develop typically female physical traits, including external genitalia that may resemble a clitoris and a vagina.

  11. 1975: RENÉE RICHARDS

    Roger Raskin (born 1934) undergoes sex reassignment in 1975. Adopting the name Renée Richards, she plays pro tennis as a woman. The following year, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) denies Richards entry to the US Open. Richards challenges the decision in court, arguing that the policy is discriminatory and violates her civil rights. In 1977, a New York court rules in her favor, stating that the USTA had violated the state's human rights laws by discriminating against her.


    The IAAF introduces guidelines on sex verification for female athletes, requiring them to undergo medical examinations and chromosome testing in certain cases. The guidelines are later criticized for being discriminatory and scientifically flawed. Spain’s Maria Jose Martinez-Patino is declared ineligible to compete as a woman in the 1988 Olympic games, but she challenges the rules and is allowed back.


    A product of East Germany’s State Plan 14.25, a state-sponsored performance enhancing doping regime, Heidi Krieger (born 1965) wins gold as a woman in the 1986 European Athletics Championships. As she matures, Krieger experiences unwelcome physical and emotional changes as a result of the doping (believed to be anabolic steroids) and, in 1997, becomes Andreas Krieger after surgery. The IOC ends mandatory gender testing for female athletes, replacing it with an approach that focuses on visual assessments and medical histories.


    Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan (born 1981) is stripped of her silver medal in the women's 800-meter race at the Asian Games after she is found to have high levels of testosterone. She is subsequently diagnosed with AIS. In 2014, fellow Indian athlete Dutee Chand is banned because of high natural testosterone levels; she successfully appeals the verdict. In 2023, Chand is banned for four years after a dope test reveals the presence of selective androgen receptor modulators that enhance muscle growth, bone density and other physical functions in a way similar to anabolic steroids.

  15. 2009: CASTER SEMENYA

    South Africa’s Caster Semenya (born 1991) wins the women's 800-meter race at the World Championships. She has higher-than-average levels of male sex hormones (androgens) in her body. It's not a medical condition but rather a description of hormone levels, a condition known as hyperandrogyny. In 2018, the IAAF brings in rules that restrict testosterone levels in female athletes in some events. Semenya loses her 2019 legal challenge to the IAAF rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, considered the highest arbiter in global sports.

  16. 2021: LAUREL HUBBARD

    New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard (born 1978), becomes the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. Her participation sparks discussions about the inclusion of transgender athletes in elite sports and the challenges of balancing fairness with inclusivity. The International Weightlifting Federation, the sport’s world governing body, adheres to the IOC’s 2015 guidelines that allow transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics without undergoing gender confirmation surgery, provided that their testosterone levels remain below a certain threshold for at least 12 months prior to competition.

  17. 2022: LIA THOMAS

    Swimmer Lia Thomas makes history as the first transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division title in any sport when she wins the 500-yard freestyle. Assigned male at birth, Thomas previously competed on a men’s team. The NCAA updates its transgender athlete eligibility guidelines so that each sport’s governing body can make its own rules. Critics argue Thomas and other transgender athletes have physical advantages over cisgender women. Some studies agree; others do not. The debate is not closed.

  18. 2023: DANIELLE McGAHEY

    Swimming’s international governing body for swimming, World Aquatics, introduces an “open” category in which transgender athletes are allowed to compete. Other sports, including cycling, triathlon, rugby league and even chess introduce similar restrictions, though mostly on people who were born male and later transitioned to female. But, bucking the trend, Canada includes Danielle McGahey (b. 1994), a trans player in its squad for cricket’s Women’s T20 World Cup, to be played in 2024 — only to find a change to international cricket’s rules make her ineligible.

  19. Credits Written by Ellis Cashmore
    Edited by Anton Schauble
    Produced by Lokendra Singh
    Images courtesy of Shutterstock and Creative Commons