Paul Lewis: Gender tests get shake-up

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There is probably no sadder thing in world sport than a gender test. An exclusively female burden, it is demeaning and derogatory even if it is conducted, as is now happening with South African athlete Caster Semenya, as delicately as possible.

Semenya, just 18, won the 800m world championships in Berlin by a huge margin but was immediately subject to whispers, stares and outright disbelief. Surely she was a man. She had little or no bosom, rippling muscles, a deep voice and, according to some unconfirmed reports, even some facial hair.

The IAAF confirmed, after the race, that it had ordered gender tests on Semenya. That was caused not solely by her appearance and the whispering campaign but by the fact that she had improved her times out of sight in a short time.

The sad thing is that, no matter even if Semenya is proved to be a woman, she will always be under critical scrutiny of the worst kind.

Imagine, 18 years old and the world is looking at you and passing judgement. She will likely never be clear of the taunt or, at best, the suspicion that she is a man.

Most look at such incidences and think that the person in question must have done something - covered up their maleness or had surgery or cheated in some way.

What most people do not realise is that in athletics these days, it is possible for a woman to be, technically, a man and yet still compete as a female.

That's because science has caught up to, and passed, popular prejudices.

The most famous case of woman-is-man was Stella Walsh, the winner of the gold medal in the women's 100m at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Her name then was Stanislawa Walasciewicz and she competed for Poland even though she had been brought up with an immigrant family in the US since she was a baby.

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Berlin again - Walsh won the silver medal, exciting much attention for her male characteristics. In 1980, the now-naturalised and name-changed Walsh was accidentally shot and killed during a bank robbery in Cleveland. A medical examination showed that she had a tiny penis and testes and no female organs.

The thing is, medical science has now blurred the boundaries by proving that we humans aren't as black and white - nor as male and female - as we think we are.

Taking steroids is cheating. So is hiding a sex change operation. But the key element in a gender test for a female athlete is whether they have male characteristics which translate into male-type muscle mass and improved performances.

It's not an easy subject. Science now tells us that the old law that women have 46 XX chromosomes and blokes 46 XY chromosomes is wrong. Some people develop a whole range of both; many end up being "inter-sex", neither one thing nor the other, and develop as a woman or a man depending on hormones and influences, such as parents.

Some women, even beautiful women, are men - technically. One in 15,000 births produces a female who has 46 XY chromosomes. They have no male genitalia. They have a vagina but no uterus. They are often found to have small testicles in the abdomen which are generally surgically removed. Their maleness never develops. To all intents and purposes they are women.

Some are even gorgeous examples - one school of thought has it that many women of beautiful but androgynous appearance, like some models, are tall and willowy, with beautiful skin. But some would fail a chromosome-based gender test.

Which is why the IAAF may allow women, including Semenya, to keep titles if the chromosomes aren't right but it is clear they have gained no physical advantage over the competition.

It works the other way too. There are a few men born with 46 XX chromosomes. They should be women. But they don't develop as such because they have too many male hormones. They will often look like a boy but, once a month, will have blood in their urine. Their genitalia may develop but can be muted or somewhere in between a man's and a woman's. Most undergo corrective genital surgery and are raised as females.

But, as we have shown, such a person would pass the old chromosome test - in that they'd look like a boy but would show up as having female properties.

That is why the Olympic and world athletics authorities have dropped the oldest and most degrading sex test method - getting those in doubt to drop their dacks while medicos peer at their most intimate parts - and the subsequent chromosome-based smear.

Even at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, eight women failed sex tests but were all eventually cleared - after being proven to be "inter-sex".

That is why Semenya's gender testing is taking so long - as it involves a determination now made by gynaecologists, endocrinologists, geneticists and psychologists.

So it's a nasty, muddled old pasture that Semenya has strayed into in winning the 800m world title. Let's hope she escapes the fate of Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who failed a sex test in the 2006 Asian Games after coming second in the women's 800m.

Soundarajan looked like a woman, had always been brought up female and had never had her gender queried previously. She turned out to be one of those people mentioned above - female in all respects except for her chromosomes and with no physical advantages.

However, in those less enlightened days, her silver medal was stripped, she later attempted suicide but has now rebuilt her life as a successful athletics coach.

Semenya has conducted herself with admirable poise through all this. Let's hope she continues to do so. Let's also hope that a sensible decision is arrived at.

- Herald on Sunday

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