Rather than relishing her moment as 800-meter world champion, 18-year-old South African
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
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
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
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
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
The year after she lost her medal, Soundarajan, having lived her life as a woman, was
Perhaps Semenya does have genetic advantages, but so does