The gender test ordered up for the South African wunderkind who
grabbed 800-metre gold this week could reveal any of several
genetic disorders resulting in a physically ambiguous sexual
identity, experts say.
Hormones and surgery, in other words, are not the only things
that can bend gender to boost female performance by shape-shifting
bodies and building muscle mass.
But taking steroids or hiding a sex-change is cheating.
Being born with unusual chromosomes is not, which raises the
uncomfortable possibility that an athlete could be stripped of a
gold medal because of her -- or his -- genes.
Whether this is what lies in store for 18-year-old Caster
Semenya, who demolished the competition at the athletics world
championships in Berlin, is still unknown.
How the process will unfold
A spokesman for the sport's governing body, the International
Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said Thursday that
even if she "fails" the gender test she might still be able to keep
But her blistering speed and masculine physique raised doubts
about her sexuality, prompting the IAAF -- acting, perhaps, after a
challenge from a national federation -- to call for a closer look.
The IAAF has said very little about the tests, but guidelines
laid out by its medical committee on gender verification give clues
as to how the process will unfold.
"Determination should not be done solely on laboratory-based sex
determination" in resolving contested cases, it says.
For Semenya, the IAAF will call on a gynaecologist, an
endocrinologist, a geneticist and a psychologist to conduct the
evaluation, the IAAF said.
An expert on "gender and transgender issues" may also take part,
according to the guidelines, which identify several genetic
disorders not necessarily disqualifying even if they can give
female athletes an edge.
Previous techniques no good
The IAAF and other sports authorities -- notably the
International Olympic Committee -- have not always been so nuanced
in determining sexuality.
In the 1960s, both bodies began to conduct what the IAAF today
acknowledges were "rather crude and perhaps humiliating physical
examinations" of genitalia.
This policy was quickly dropped in favour of a simple genetic
test from saliva samples to determine whether an athlete had two
"X" chromosomes (a woman) or "X" and "Y" chromosomes (an man).
But the technique was deeply flawed, and failed to account for a
previously unsuspected wide range of sexual variation that is now
often called "intersex" -- "being born somewhere between the
sexes," in the words of Michelle O'Brien, a board member of the
International Intersex Organisation.
"The sports world found itself confronted with the reality of
multiple sexual identities that did fit with these categories and
which science was bringing to light," notes Thierry Terret, author
of the book Sports and Gender.
"Genetic, gonadal and anatomical sexuality all need to be
separated. There are not just two sexes -- XX-female and XY-male --
but many along a continuum," he wrote.
In the Klinefelter syndrome, for example, men carry an extra "X"
chromosome, often resulting in smaller testicles and reduced
Another condition, called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH),
is an endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands produce
abnormally high levels of virilising hormones in women, resulting
CAH "may accord some advantage" to female athletes but is
"nevertheless acceptable," the IAAF guidelines specify.
In yet another variant called complete androgen insensitivity
syndrome (CAIS), a person has XY chromosomes but looks like a
The individual develops a vagina, but rather than female
productive organs has undescended or partially-descended testes. – (Sapa, August 2009)
Caster Semenya's sex in doubt