Semenya and the Gender Puzzle

Before the 2009 Berlin World Athletic championships you probably had no knowledge of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. But neither did you know about Caster Semenya.

It could very well be that in terms of social evolution athletic events belong to the Stone Age since it is one of the very few areas of human endeavour where gender lines are clear cut. In an increasingly post gendered, transgendered, cross gendered, agendered world it is countertrend to be talking about whether or not the 18-year-old South African track star Caster Semenya should keep her 800m gold medal won at the recent Berlin World Athletics Championships.

In the wake of rumours and protests the authorities conducted tests, and before they could make an official announcement, the results were leaked to journalist Mike Hurst who broke the news in the Australian tabloid, The Daily Telegraph of September 11, 2009:

WORLD athletics is in crisis over the gender of Caster Semenya after tests revealed the South African world champion has no womb or ovaries.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is ready to disqualify Semenya from future events and advise her to have immediate surgery because her condition carries grave health risks. They have also not ruled out stripping Semenya of her 800m world championships gold medal.

Tests conducted during the world athletics championships in Berlin last month, where Semenya's gender became the subject of heated debate following her victory in the 800m, revealed evidence she is a hermaphrodite, someone with both male and female sexual characteristics.

Semenya, 18, has three times the amount of testosterone that a "normal'' female would have. According to a source closely involved with the Semenya examinations IAAF testing, which included various scans, has revealed she has internal testes - the male sexual organs which produce testosterone.


Only the certainty of an even more savage backlash from South Africa has made the IAAF hesitant about slapping a ban on Semenya and revoking her gold medal.

The controversy has left the International Association of Athletics Federations with two cats to bell: the South African government and the African National Congress.

The Minister of sports has been quoted by www.sportscientist.com as responding to the test results with:

“That means nothing. There are many hermaphrodites in the world so what does it matter. This girl is running as a girl who has been accredited as a girl. Nobody has questioned that. She doesn’t have a womb, so what?"

According to the online blog “This might just rank right up there Leonard Chuene, President of ASA, calling scientists and universities "stupid" about two weeks ago, and it again betrays the complete lack of value that seems to be placed on facts, law and science in this case.”


Caster Semenya during World Championships 2009 in Berlin. Source: Erik van Leeuwen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Caster Semenya during World Championships 2009 in Berlin. Source: Erik van Leeuwen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Chuene Admits to Lying

The crisis deepens. Chuene has finally admitted when he said no gender tests on the apparently intersex runner had been conducted prior to the Berlin Championships. He also failed to reveal a physician's recommendation that Semenya be pulled from the event. Chuene said he lied to protect Semenya's confidentiality.

And we still have to wait until November for IAAF to make an official announcement.

My sympathies are with the athlete. To be born a freak of nature is bad enough. To have it covered up by the officials in order to win gold for the country, and then have it discussed in world media must be most embarrassing.


The Science of Gender

Yet the historical evidence would suggest that the athletic tradition has allowed females to run who failed gender verification tests. Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas in their blog The Science of Sport seek to clarify the issue.

Strictly speaking, Semenya is NOT a hermaphrodite, she is a pseudohermaphrodite (which is itself an inadequately broad term).

Hermaphroditism is a very rare condition in which a person has both ovaries and testes (and thus produces eggs and sperm), and the external genitalia are a usually combination of male and female. Having only testes (internal, in this case) means hermaphrodite is the wrong word to use. Also, Semenya cannot possibly have male reproductive organs externally, because this would be immediately obvious to a doping official during doping controls. Therefore, she must have, at worst, ambiguous genitalia, which would suggest pseudohermaphroditism (a very broad term indeed).


Technically there are three types of intersex conditions:

  1. Conditions resulting in the masculinised female
  2. Conditions resulting in the under-masculinised male
  3. Pure hermaphroditism

The Science of Sport bloggers conclude that Semenya falls in the category of under-masculinised male and posit that the possible scenario is the following:

  • She is genetically male - that is, she has an X and a Y chromosome
  • She would have produced testes during development (the gonads differentiate at about 7 weeks, directed by genes linked to the Y-chromosome)
  • She may be insensitive to testosterone, as a result of a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS on the diagram), which means that we will have high levels of testosterone that do not exert the normal effect on the reproductive system
  • As a result, she develops as a female despite the presence of the male hormone and organs
  • Because she was "directed" to become male, she does not develop a uterus either


Having explained all that they then go on to point out that “people with intersex conditions CAN still participate in sport as women.”

Just to pick 1996 Olympics 8 women were identified as "genetic males", but all 8 were allowed to compete. These 8 would have presented with the same results as Caster Semenya supposedly has - no uterus, no ovaries, and (possibly) internal testes.

Here is the IAAF policy document on gender verification (2006):

6. Conditions that should be allowed:

(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:
- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete - previously called testicular feminization);
- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid
malignancy);
- Turner’s syndrome.

Here is the core of the problem of gender verification: What does it mean when the policy says "complete" insensitivity?

The physical evidence would suggest that her body benefits greatly from testosterone: body fat distribution, skeletal structure, deepening of the voice, facial hair growth.

So does she have an unfair advantage?

The solution proposed by The Science of Sport bloggers is removal of testes. But then the bloggers fog the issue by saying “This has nothing to do with performance, but is for health reasons - those testes can very quickly become malignant and lethal. Theirony in this drama is that Semenya's life may actually be saved as a result of the sex verification process, because had she not been an athlete, it may never have been detected.”



My Own Take On The Semenya Issue

Yes, people we want to preserve health but I thought given the controversy the removal of testes would also serve to eliminate any further masculinisation and hence give the other females a level or more level playing field on which to run.

Imagine having to endure all of this in the glare of public scrutiny. Privacy and human dignity are far more weighty than the 800m gold medal. 

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