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Caster Semenya: Controversy around gender
by Sam Worley
2009-09-02

This article shared 3848 times since Wed Sep 2, 2009
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To determine whether the gold medal she earned is valid, the International Association of Athletics Federation ( IAAF ) is forcing South African runner Caster Semenya, 18, to undergo a series of "gender tests."

The test will include, at minimum, opinions from a gynecologist, a psychologist, an endocrinologist, an internal medicine specialist and—according to the New York Times—an "expert on gender."

Questions were raised after Semenya completed an unusually strong finish in an 800-meter run at the track and field world championships in Berlin in mid-August. The IAAF decided to launch an investigation at the behest of an anonymous entity—possibly another athlete or team—and although such investigations are supposed to be themselves anonymous, the IAAF confirmed the fact of the inquiry after being asked by members of the media.

Given the history of gender testing in sports, most results seem likely to be widely unsatisfying—indeed, the minor media spectacle inspired by the case of Caster Semenya is, at its heart, one of a basically unanswerable question: what, finally, constitutes our understanding of the concepts of "gender" and "sex?"

Experts commenting on the controversy have noted that biological sex is not easily reducible to the appearance of one's genitalia, nor strictly to biology on a chromosomal or hormonal level. If the IAAF's standard was self-identification—and, by all accounts, Semenya is female-identified—the question would be moot. Instead the issue has no doubt caused considerable emotional stress for Semenya and her family; her father, Jacob Semenya, told a South African newspaper, "I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman, and I can repeat that a million times."

According to an article by Patricia Nell Warren, an athletics observer and the author of the novel The Front Runner, gender testing for competitive sports was first considered during the Cold War. Engaged in fierce competition with the USSR for Olympic medals, the United States cast aspersions on the Communist country's female athletes—insinuating that certain masculine-appearing athletes were somehow male imposters or females who had been "doped" with hormones, unfairly competing in order to embarrass the U.S. and its athletes. Speculation especially surrounded two sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, who competed in a variety of events including shot-put, discus and track.

The Internation Olympic Committee ( IOC ) first began testing for gender in 1966. It was initially a primitive affair, comprised of little more than a physical examination. In 1999, British Olympic pentathlete Mary Peters described the test as "the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known… The doctors proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance, amounted to a grope."

By 1968, scientists had abandoned the "grope" and were testing for chromosomes. In a procedure which was less invasive—physically, at least—swabs were taken from female athletes' mouths and tested for two X chromosomes. According to Warren, if the result was anything different, athletes were allowed to pretend they had a sports injury—and sent home.

The fact, however, is that "XX" and "XY" simply do not account for the biological possibilities of human life. Mark Osadjan, a physiologist who teaches a class called "The Biology of Gender" for the University of Chicago, described biological sex to Windy City Times as "an incredibly murky thing."

Osadjan said that there have been repeated examples of female athletes being excluded from competition after being found to have some chromosomal variation that places them outside the category of "XX." He said that there are a number of conditions—many of which may fall, though not necessarily, under the umbrella category "intersex"—that, though naturally occurring, have not been integrated into any procedure by which organizations like the IAAF could treat its athletes humanely.

Examples of such conditions include androgen insensitivity syndrome, which affects how the body's cells receive the testosterone that the body produces, and congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which affects how the adrenal glands produce hormones.

Ultimately, said Osadjan, "Who knows whether this individual is intersex or fully female or whatever? We have to realize that there's a spectrum of everything—why should this be any different?" The highly invasive process of testing, he said, "really dehumanizes [ Semenya ] and her accomplishments, because she's a phenomenal athlete."

He also pointed out that professional athletics is a natural arena for people who might be considered by many to be abnormally strong, abnormally tall, abnormally flexible, or simply abnormally talented in general—and that it is only in the binary realm of gender that this becomes an issue. "You have too much athletic ability," for instance, would be an absurd accusation, Osadjan said. "Nobody says that to Lance Armstrong."

Osadjan said that as long as sports officials limit their conditions for biological sex to XX and XY—in effect, considering naturally-occurring variant conditions to be suspect and alien—problems will continue to result.

These problems will be both humiliating to athletes and, ultimately, embarrassing to organized sports. As recently as 1996, for instance, eight female athletes were ejected from the Olympic games in Atlanta after testing revealed them to have XY chromosomes.

In the end, the IOC wavered: further tests concluded the athletes to be physiologically female though genetically male. They were reinstated.

What happens to Caster Semenya, of course, remains to be seen. Pending the actual results of the IAAF's investigation, two things seem at this point conclusive. First, Semenya will be subjected to not just a gynecological exam and a blood test but, in fact, to the effects of a whole slew of highly wrought anxieties about sex and gender. And second, it apparently takes, yes, at least five "experts" to make a decision on behalf of somebody who has quite clearly already made it for herself.


This article shared 3848 times since Wed Sep 2, 2009
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