Caster Semenya, Caster Semenya berlin, Caster Semenya world championships
Anja Niedringhaus/AP
South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women’s 800-
meters, Aug. 19, 2009.

Caster Semenya Case Raises Question: How Do You Determine Sex?

August 20, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
South African runner Caster Semenya is being tested to determine whether she is a female amid suspicion that she may actually possess the genetic characteristics of a male.

World Champion Semenya Undergoing Sex Verification Test

Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old South African runner, has been required to undergo a sex verification test by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s international governing body, after she easily won the 800-meter women’s final at the world championships Wednesday.

Semenya has a deep voice and masculine features, and has reportedly become accustomed to being teased about her appearance, says The Daily Telegraph. When she was recently told that she could not use the women’s bathroom at a South African gas station, she offered to drop her pants to prove her womanhood.

However, external genitalia do not necessarily indicate one’s sex. Roughly 1 percent of people are born with some level of intersexuality. In Semenya’s case, it is possible that she was born with male chromosomes and other male characteristics, but without male genitalia, leading her and her family to believe that she is female.

The IAAF has given conflicting information about whether Semenya would keep her medal if she is found not to be a woman. IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss said Wednesday that she would be stripped of her medal, but spokesman Nick Davies said Thursday that she would likely be allowed to keep it because she had not knowingly deceived anybody.

In a similar case, Santhi Soundarajan, an Indian runner who won silver in the women’s 800-meters at the 2006 Asian Games, had her medal taken away even though she believed that she was a woman.

Analysis: How will Semenya’s sex be verified?

Doctors in South Africa and Berlin are performing multiple tests to determine whether Semenya qualifies as a woman, including an examination of genitals and gonads, chromosomal testing and hormone measurement. “The key question would be whether it offered her an unfair advantage over her rivals by giving her a male musculature,” according to The Daily Telegraph.

It is suspected that Semenya may have a chromosomal disorder that has left her with male and female chromosomes. “About 1 percent of people are born with some kind of sexual ambiguity, sometimes referred to as intersexuality,” according to The Associated Press. “These people may have the physical characteristics of both genders, a chromosomal disorder, or simply have ambiguous features.”

Steve Connor, science editor for The Independent, speculates that Semenya may have “androgen insensitivity syndrome,” a condition that affects 1 in 20,000 women. They “look, feel and behave like women,” and have female genitalia, but they have XY chromosomes, making them genetically male. Often, says Connor, these women do not know they are male until they attempt to have children.

A chromosomal test alone does not produce a definitive result, however. “Women who tested positive for ‘male’ genes might still have most of the physical characteristics of women,” says The Times of South Africa. Therefore, physical examinations, hormone tests and other tests are needed to verify the results.

Even after the comprehensive testing is complete, it will not be entirely clear whether Semenya is a woman. Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, told The New York Times, “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. … At the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision.”

Background: Questioning the sex of athletes

Sex testing for female athletes was first instituted at the 1966 European Track and Field Championships. Testing was limited to an examination of external genitalia, but this “alone doesn’t distinguish people who have external genitalia of one gender but other characteristics of another gender,” says Ross Tucker, a doctor at South Africa’s Sports Science Institute.

The IOC began using genetic testing at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Various forms of genetic testing continued for three decades, though the tests were criticized as being unreliable. Finally, in 1999, the IOC discontinued the practice.

In 2004, the IOC began allowing all transsexual athletes to compete in the Olympics under their “new” sex, beginning two years after their sex change operations.

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