Excerpt: Kristen Worley and Johanna Schneller’s ‘Woman Enough’

The cyclist discusses undergoing the International Olympic Committee’s gender-verification process — and what the experience showed her about prejudice, fairness, and sport
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Aug 06, 2019

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“Do not show weakness,” I kept telling myself. “Do not let them see you break down.”

As a competitive cyclist, I had discipline. I knew a lot about riding through pain. But what these four men — all white, heterosexual, and over 50 — were doing to me in this nondescript Ottawa boardroom, in the name of Canada’s National Sport Organizations, was wrong.

Ever since I was a kid, when I would run as an escape from a life I didn’t fit into, I had wanted to compete as a high-performance athlete. Sport is supposed to be straightforward, clear-cut. You train, you do your best, and you either win or you don’t. Sport was my safe space.

I wanted to cycle for Canada in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I was ready. I’d spent the last few years training six to eight hours a day, seven days a week. I’d raced twice a week. I’d ridden through rain, sleet, and snow, skidding on wet leaves and swerving away from countless cars. I’d made a million circles on the banked tracks of velodromes, climbing the steep angled corners and dropping down to straights at dizzying speeds. I’d gone to sleep each night with my pulse throbbing in my exhausted thighs, and I’d woken each morning, almost too stiff to move, to do it all over again. Canada’s national coach believed I would qualify fair and square for the B-team in pursuit track racing. All I needed was my licence. Which was why I was here, in this office, in front of these men.

I’m a woman, a fully transitioned XY female. But, in 2003, in advance of the Athens Olympics in 2004, the International Olympic Committee, together with the World Anti-Doping Agency, had put out a two-page policy statement, the “Stockholm Consensus on Sex Reassignment in Sport,” to govern the process by which transitioned athletes are “authenticated”— verified as the gender they say they are — and permitted to compete. It was now April 2005. I was the first athlete to be tested under this new policy anywhere in the world.

Of the four men in the room, two were sport administrators, one was a lawyer, and one was an emergency-room doctor — not a gender or endocrine specialist. The doctor had no special knowledge of hormone science. This shocked me.

I had assumed that the IOC would have done its research before moving ahead with its new policy. But an hour into the encounter, I was sure that I knew more about the science of my body than these four men and the entire IOC put together.

The assumed authority of sport had empowered them to do whatever they wanted to me. It was like handing a layperson a scalpel and saying, “Here, now you’re a heart surgeon. Don’t worry about the law; we answer to no one.” It was absurd, and yet my sport and my livelihood — my life — depended on this panel’s “verifying” that I was who I know I am. “Authenticating” me as a woman.

I’d already endured a humiliating physical examination with an endocrinologist in Toronto, where I live. He asked me intimate questions about my vagina. He did a complete gynecological exam. He requested and received an affidavit from the surgeon who performed my transition surgery, and a copy of my birth certificate verifying my gender as female. He asked me about my sexuality — even though who I like to sleep with is irrelevant to my gender description — and included that in his multi-page report. He shared my full medical records — my most private information — with this panel, which eventually shared them with the IOC and the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international cycling organization I belong to; they also passed my records on to Sport Canada, to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (Canada’s anti-doping body), and to literally anyone else who asked to read them.

I’m uncomfortable talking about sex. Even though I went through a full medical transition in 2004, I was a square kid, and I’ve lived a private, conservative life. So I requested a copy of the UCI medical report and a list of everyone who had reviewed my private file. My requests were denied. “You just have to trust us, Kristen,” was all the UCI said.

I was trying to play by their rules. I’ve always been a well-behaved person. Often too well-behaved. I am respectful. I treat others as I want to be treated. And I was the one who’d willingly driven the five hours from Toronto to Ottawa to be here, excited that, after this ordeal was over, I’d be able to compete in sport as who I really am.

I also knew that this was about something much bigger than just me. I wanted to make sport better and safer for the athletes coming up after me. I grew up in athletics. I’m passionate about the good things in the sport world, the way it’s able to shine a spotlight on issues of ability and diversity. To empower people. So I answered their questions, even when, over and over, they asked me why I wanted to be in sport. I answered honestly: I’ve been a high-performance athlete my whole life. It’s who I am. It’s fun. It’s my community, my tribe. My opponents are also my friends. It’s about competing — for me and for my country — but even more, it’s about camaraderie.

To be honest, there was something deeper going on, too. I knew I was there to be approved. But what I really wanted was to be accepted. In my life, that’s been rare, and it’s precious to me.

Excerpted from Woman Enough: How a Boy Became a Woman and Changed the World of Sport by Kristen Worley and Johanna Scheller. Copyright © 2019 Kristen Worley and Johanna Scheller. Reprinted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

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