Caster Semenya, Caster Semenya berlin, Caster Semenya world championships, caster semenya flag, caster semenya abs
Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 800-meters, Aug. 19, 2009.

Caster Semenya and the Ambiguity in Determining Sex

November 19, 2009 08:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
The results of Caster Semenya’s sex verification tests will not be made public. Reports suggest that she is intersex, meaning that she cannot be classified simply as a male or female.

Results of Sex Verification Test Kept Secret

The results of sex verification tests performed by the International Association of Athletics Federations on South African runner Caster Semenya will be kept confidential, the South African Sports Ministry announced Thursday. Semenya, who won the women’s 800-meters at the IAAF world championships in August, will be allowed to keep her gold medal and prize money. There has been no official word on whether she will be allowed to continue competing as a woman.

The 18-year-old Semenya has the external genitalia of a woman, but her deep voice and masculine features raised suspicion that she may actually possess the genetic characteristics of a male. Doctors performed multiple tests to determine whether Semenya qualifies as a woman, including an examination of genitals and gonads, chromosomal testing and hormone measurement.

According to a report in Australia’s Daily Telegraph, the sex verification tests revealed that she has internal testes, no womb or ovaries, and three times the amount of testosterone of an average woman. The results have not been confirmed by the IAAF or any governing body.

What Is Intersexuality?

Semenya, if the Daily Telegraph’s report is true, is an example of an intersex person. According to the Intersex Society of North America, signs of intersexuality are observed in 1 of every 1,500-2000 babies, but “a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life.”

Intersexuality is much more common in South Africa, says Dr. David Segal, an endocrinologist a Johannesburg hospital, who estimates that as many as 1 in 200 South Africans have some level of intersexuality.

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.

In The Times of London, Helen Rumbelow reports that British doctors have over the past several decades changed their approach toward the roughly 1 in 4,000 children born with an indeterminate sex. They used to commonly perform surgeries on the genitals of intersex babies to make them appear “normal,” but they now avoid surgery and allow the children to decide on their gender when they become older.

“Britain is the first to base treatment on the assumption that it should be acceptable for boys and girls to look far from ‘normal,’” Rumbelow writes. “This approach asks provocative questions of the rest of us. What makes us the sex we are, and what makes that so normal in the first place?

Will Semenya Be Allowed to Compete With Women?

In deciding whether Semenya’s sex precludes her from competing with women, the IAAF must determine whether her condition gives her an unfair advantage over her competitors. This is a very subjective decision, explains Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, in The New York Times.

“The current policies … are vague, incomplete and contradictory,” she writes. “For example, one states that some women with some male-typical aspects (including, in some cases, a Y chromosome and testes) can play as women, but it doesn’t specify which combinations disqualify an athlete.”

Even if Semenya is banned from women’s competitions, it is very possible that she could return after corrective surgery to remove the internal testes she reportedly has. The Science of Sport’s Ross Tucker explains that doctors recommend this procedure because the testes present increased risk of cancer.

“So rather than ask what the IAAF will do about her performance advantage, one should perhaps be asking whether the medical treatment SHE seeks is going to affect performance, and whether that medical treatment might negate the responsibility of the IAAF to make a decision at all,” writes Tucker.

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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