Gender Determination: The Fall After the Glory

Success can be bitter-sweet. It can catapult an unknown face to the pinnacle of fame in a matter of minutes. And, as we see today, it can stretch the fame to infamy.

18-year-old South African athlete Caster Semenya got the first taste of suspicion smacked across her face when a commentator made a cheeky comment on her masculine appearance moments after her win at the 2009 World Championships. Her impressive gold medal win in the 800m race could very well taint her future if tests determine that she is actually ‘he’. A strong jaw, powerful chest and strong voice – these features defined her right from puberty. Childhood photographs show her quite at ease in boyish clothes and haircuts. So, what is she? A tomboy or an intersex? The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) seems to suspect the latter.

Intersex, according to definition, is a condition where a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy not falling categorically into the designations of male or female. A typical case is of Santhi Soundarajan who was stripped of her Asian Games Silver medal (2006) for failing a gender test. Media later revealed (speculated) that even though she had female external features she was anatomically male. It was attributed to Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) in which a person born with the genotype XY is insensitive to testosterone. Insensitivity to testosterone leads to non-development of masculine external characteristics. Since being female is a default gender condition, such individuals possess feminine morphology. As male appearance is the root case of the dissent, AIS has been ruled out of Semenya’s case.

As the world waits with bated breath for the gender verification test results of Caster Semenya to be revealed, the age old question of the ‘unfair advantage’ is again unleashed across newspapers and minds of people alike. It sure might have been easier back in the olden days when the Olympics was an all-male affair and the competitors walked in through the gates naked. But ever since women were beckoned into the world of international sports competitions, gender disputes have dogged the arena. The idea was to prevent males from posing as females in female gender specific competitions and having an unfair physical edge over the other competitors. After embarrassing episodes like that of Hermann ‘Dora’ Ratjen who competed in the women’s high jump event at the 1936 Summer Olympics (and finished fourth) and later went on to set the erstwhile women’s high jump record later, gender tests were adopted as face-saving measures. The abrupt retirement of the “Press brothers” (Tamara and Irina Press) from professional racing just after the gender tests were announced put a question mark over the legitimacy of the sisters’ gold heist at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games.

Gender tests prescribed were primitive and allegedly humiliating. Women were required to undress in front of a panel of doctors and a close examination of their external genitalia comprised the usual exercise. Since women were at the receiving end of the ‘unfair advantage’, professional male sportsmen were exempted from the tests. As science began to rise at the horizon, these naked eye tests were supplemented by chromosomal DNA tests which determined the genotype of the individual tested. They were definitely more accurate than the traditional method. The authenticity of DNA technology to eliminate unfair competition came under the scanner as research established the existence of disorders of sexual development. AIS is but one of them. The irony of the matter is, since AIS is characteristic of insensitivity to testosterone, the person is essentially female and does not have the advantage of extra muscle mass (which the hormone brings about) despite having an XY genotype.

If testosterone secretion is the benchmark to determine the level of advantage, then Semenya stands to lose as her pre-competition test results reportedly showed levels three times the normal level for a woman. But is basing a person’s gender on the amount of a particular hormone secreted by the body glands a foolproof method? What should be considered a more credible method – hormonal levels or genotype?

Most competitions allow transsexual male athletes to compete as females after completing the requisite period of hormonal therapy. This is usually two years after the gonads have been removed; time enough for any hormone-induced advantage to subside. Athletes who underwent the gender reassignment surgery before puberty were automatically accepted into the competitions (as testosterone surge begins with puberty). Obviously, this rule draws its grain from the belief that hormones determine gender. As hormonal level decides muscle mass and subsequently the ability to perform in high intensity sports, it may indeed have a one up over the other parameters. This situation could point out further flaws in the tests. Medical conditions like congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen-secreting tumours could result in higher secretion of male hormones in women and enhance muscle mass. Unfair advantage again. At present, no international level competition has provisions to get female competitors tested for such abnormalities.

Excellence in sports always surfaces with a combination of hard work and that push from nature which we like to call ‘genius’. Can we classify high levels of androgens in some women as that extra push from nature? Is it the same as Michael Phelps having an extraordinary arm span, in turn, helping him propel his body better than other swimmers?

The debate goes on and an agreement is unlikely to be reached, at least, in the near future. Since medical science itself seems divided over the issue of gender, with some groups extending a wide range of flexibility and others following a more constricted path, it would not be surprising if we get to see more Semenyas in the fray.

The need of the hour is to make the tests as comfortable as possible for the athletes. It is for the same reason that carpet testing was dropped. The media should keep under control the temptation to jump up to conclusions about an athlete caught in the crossfire and give him or her the benefit of doubt till proven otherwise. Gender determination is a sensitive issue and being written about in a negative way can weave adverse psychological effects in an athlete. The legitimacy of the labour put in by the person in question should be borne in mind before writing them off on the basis of naked eye judgements, some of which are made keeping T.V appearances as base.

Back to waiting, with bated breath, for Semenya’s test results.

Shruthi Venukumar

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