IAAF has no reason to disqualify 800-meter champion Semenya

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The IAAF has said that Semenya, whose rivals have noted her unusually muscular physique and husky voice, is not being accused of cheating, but that she will nonetheless be subjected to a battery of tests -- that go way beyond trouser-dropping -- ostensibly to determine her sex. According to doctors, though, short of Semenya being found to be a male intentionally masquerading as a female -- and by all accounts thus far from her family and coaches, this doesn't seem to be the case -- there is essentially no test result that should impact Semenya's eligibility to compete as a female.


Because of problems with the methods, sex-verification testing was abandoned by the IOC prior to the 2000 Sydney Games, and by the IAAF back in 1991. (IAAF can still test an individual athlete when suspicions arise). A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) from 2000 applauded the end of sex testing because, although it "superficially seems endorsable on the grounds of fairness ... in reality, gender verification tests are difficult, expensive and potentially inaccurate."

But why all the fuss in this era of transcendent technology when we can simply look at Semenya's genetics? Women have XX chromosomes and men have XY, right? Well, sometimes. Some women actually have XY chromosomes. Spanish hurdler María Martínez Patiño was stripped of her 1986 national championship in the 60-meter hurdles because an earlier test showed that she had a man's XY chromosomes. Patiño was a male pseudohermaphrodite, which means that she was genetically male but that her external genitalia failed to develop. Patiño looked and felt like a female, was raised as a female, and only heard otherwise when she was tested at the World University Games in Japan in 1985.

Patiño did not, however, have an unfair advantage over her competitors. She, like other male pseudohermaphrodites, had what's called complete "androgen insensitivity," meaning that though Patiño's testes may have produced masculinizing doses of testosterone, her body could not use it. "You could argue that [people like Patiño] are at a disadvantage," says Joe Leigh Simpson, an associate dean at Florida International's medical school, and professor of obstetrics, gynecology and molecular genetics. "Unlike normal females, they can't even respond to the testosterone that's there."

So perhaps the amount of testosterone that is used by the body should be the telltale sign of sex. Except that there is tremendous hormonal variation among people, and attempting to survey humans to determine what testosterone level constitutes a man or woman "becomes absurd very quickly," says Simpson, who watched Semenya's race and said that he can "understand some of the skepticism."

There are certain rare circumstances that could cause a female athlete to have unusually high levels of testosterone. For example, a woman could have a tumor or birth defect that produces testosterone. But would that warrant disqualification?

"If she's got a tumor, she didn't cause the tumor," Simpson says, "and if she's got a birth defect that produces increases in hormones, it still shouldn't make her ineligible. The women in weight bearing events in the Olympics probably have higher levels of hormones than some other athletes, but it's no different from anything else. If you look at the women playing beach volleyball, there's no question they're gifted in terms of their height. All of those athletes competing in Berlin have advantages." Thus, short of having arbitrary, competitive hormone classes -- akin to weight classes in boxing -- screening for natural hormone levels is useless.

Since neither one's genitalia nor genetics or hormones can necessarily pinpoint one's sex, barring a finding that Semenya is a man intentionally competing as a woman, there appear to be no grounds for IAAF to disqualify her based on what would have to be a subjective standard to determine that someone who was raised as a woman and considers herself a woman is in fact a man. That's why IAAF and IOC gave up regular sex testing in the first place.

The Olympic Council of Asia is the only major sports body that continues widespread sex-verification testing. In 2006, the council stripped 25-year-old Santhi Soundarajan of her 800-meter silver in the Asian Games after she "failed" a sex-verification test. It is unclear exactly what finding caused the disqualification, but Soundarajan, like Patiño, clearly lived her life as a woman, and if she had XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity, as some media reports suggested, it should not have been considered an advantage.

The year after she lost her medal, Soundarajan, having lived her life as a woman, was "shattered by the failed test" and tried to kill herself. Patiño decided to fight back and eventually won the right to compete, but her career had already been derailed. "I lost friends, my fiancé, hope and energy," she wrote in a 2005 article in the journal Lancet. "But I knew that I was a woman and that my genetic difference gave me no unfair physical advantage."

Perhaps Semenya does have genetic advantages, but so does Kerri Walsh. Absent intentional deception, it's hard to imagine what the IAAF could find to be unfair.