Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Gender issue truly testing

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Caster Semenya's decision this week to aim for June, at the earliest, to make her comeback to world athletics holds major significance for women's track & field.

Semenya's gender ordeal could open the way for a whole new chapter of "inter-sex" competitors in women's events. That could overturn the whole applecart of women's track & field.

Semenya was the 18-year-old whose world championship win over 800m last year was followed by the instant controversy of a gender test. The masculine-looking Semenya has been waiting ever since (August will be a year) to see if she can compete again.

The decision is caught in a legal/scientific/social morass and is blurred by insufficient knowledge. From the outside, it seems that whatever the decision, it will attract a legal challenge.

On one side is Semenya and a battery of lawyers. On the other is the IAAF, the world athletics body; tiptoeing through this minefield. In normal circumstances, such a delay by the governing body would provoke stringent criticism but, in this case, it's understandable.

In the middle of Semenya and the IAAF is the whole vexed issue of inter-sex athletes.

We humans do not always fall into distinct male and female categories. Some people - the estimate is one in 15,000 - have female form but male chromosomal characteristics to the extent they would fail a sex test.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight women failed such sex tests but were eventually cleared after they were proven to be "inter-sex".

Some women have totally female characteristics but carry male genes. Some have small testicles hidden inside the abdomen.

The key question is whether they derive any benefit from this accident of birth. Unconfirmed media reports have alleged Semenya has testicles inside her abdomen and has about three times as much testosterone as a 'normal' woman. However, many such women lack the male receptors to convert the testosterone to aid performance.

Even if Semenya can, there is still difficult legal ground to be traversed. There are no hard and fast rules applying to this situation.

Many sportspeople reach the top because of the way God made them. They could be taller than average, or stronger, or quicker or blessed with unusually good hand-eye coordination or, in the case of a footballer, eye-foot.

Some women have naturally higher levels of testosterone - so it's their good luck if they are at the higher end of the acceptable range.

Other athletes have higher-than-normal natural levels of EPO - the hormone which increases oxygen-carrying red blood cells and which is taken by drug cheats.

The same argument can be applied to inter-sex athletes. They are usually raised as women and consider themselves women but may be aided by the physical benefits of being inter-sex.

But should they be banned from competing against females? The clear threat is that legal teams could convincingly argue they are no different from other athletes who have profited from their physical characteristics - like 100m athlete Usain Bolt, whose fast-twitch fibres allied to long legs make him gobsmackingly quick on the track.

His talent comes at least partly from an accident of birth; of physical attributes derived naturally through his genes.

If the IAAF side with Semenya, they invite controversy and legal action from female athletes who are not inter-sex and consider themselves unjustly penalised - forced to compete against people with different genetic make-up.

So then what? Do we have men's events, women's events and inter-sex events?

No, it is far more likely that the IAAF will come up with new rules governing gender. It seems almost certain that will involve new definition and scientific measurements of inter-sex athletes and that tantalising, complex question: when is a female not a female?

It seems a hopeless task and it's possible to have a great deal of sympathy for the IAAF - who have to bear the load of human evolution as they sort out an issue where science is telling us women with some male characteristics are still women.

The alternative is to allow anyone raised as a female and who considers herself to be so to compete; accepting that some women naturally have higher levels of testosterone (the hormone that builds muscles, power and strength).

Such a solution would be politically correct and also human; embracing the axiom that we are all equal in God's eyes.

But there would still be the nightmarish issue of sport being played on "a level field".

Semenya has said she will delay her return to the track until a meeting in Spain in June when the IAAF has said it will have this mess sorted.

It takes little to foresee a compromise; a deal with Semenya's lawyers allowing her to run and a new set of gender rules which will apply at a level slightly above that touched by Semenya's inter-sexness, if that is what it is.

It's the Muttiah Muralitharan solution, for want of a better term, as applied by the International Cricket Council.

Faced by persistent criticism the Sri Lankan spinner (the most successful bowler in cricket history) was a "chucker", they changed the rules to allow a bend in the arm just above that performed by Murali.

Murali can also plead an accident of birth in that some have claimed his action was due to a congenital defect - although many believe his arm flexes further according to the type of delivery he bowls.

Semenya is a full two seconds outside the world record in the 800m and is ranked 14th fastest of all time. So it's moot if she will re-write the record books, inter-sex or not.

Allowing her to run would be a human solution - one that says she should not be penalised for the gifts of her birth.

The only remaining question is what happens when another successful female athlete happens along who exceeds the Semenya levels?

- NZ Herald

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