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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sex determination in sport

The complexities of sex determination

I woke up this morning, after a short (5 hour) sleep to discover 70 emails and comments from you in response to the current Caster Semenya controversy. Thank you for the time taken to read the article and send in your opinions! Please don't take the silence and lack of a response as a sign that your thoughts have not been heard - I am at a convention and have little time to sit down and do them justice with a response!

However, I can assure you that I'm trying to get more details on the matter, and also working with a geneticist at uncovering some of the many possible conditions that make sex determination so complex - this applies not only to Semenya, but to every other athlete. Once again, if you have the time, reading the comments to this post will give you a fantastic idea of what is at stake in this, maybe the most difficult ethical debate in sport. Ranging from issues of social acceptance, to the role of urology, to the blurred lines between genetic advantage and unequal competition, it's all there. It's been highly educational for me to read as well! (a big reason why this site is so much fun!)

However, I thought I'd throw out one or two other opinions on the issue, just to give some perspective. There is a both outrageous and quality journalism going around, and so I've found a couple of articles that I think capture the issue more accurately.

1) Phil Hersh article - other runners question Semenya

This article is interesting because it describes the reactions of some of her competitors - two have gone on record as saying she should not be racing as a woman, others are equivocal, but very clearly in doubt. A lot of you have said how offended you were at Semenya's rivals' behaviour after the finish of the final, since almost no one congratulated Semenya the way we normally see. I can appreciate that, but I can also appreciate what is going through these rivals' minds. They are professional athletes, whose livelihood depends on their success on track. Success which is, according to reports and the best information they have, being challenged by an athlete they believe to be ineligible for competition. So I think their behaviour is understandable. That's not to condone it, but I think they are as much affected as anyone else - yet another reason why this is such a shame for everyone involved.

The article also talks about the IAAF and their role in it - it refers to the fact that they initiated an "investigation" after she ran 1:56 in Mauritius earlier this year. They requested a report from ASA's Chief Medical Officer, who also is on the IAAF Medical Commission. It will be interesting to discover, over time, what the report and subsequent tests reveal, if that information is ever made available. But the point is, the query seems to have been raised some time ago, and so it's certainly not a rush job (in terms of days, that is).

2) LetsRun report on the women's 800m final

The next good article is this one, from LetsRun, who do by far the best job of covering all the athletics action from Berlin. Of note in this article is reference to the fact that the IAAF prevented media from speaking to Semenya after the race. Instead, Pierre Weiss spoke, and you can actuall watch that press conference at the link above.

I think this is a wise move on the part of the IAAF. We've said all along that Semenya's welfare must be looked after, as she is the one taking the brunt of the criticism as this drama is played out on the world stage. So the IAAF have done well to protect her, and have pre-empted what would almost certainly have been a very uncomfortable and difficult press conference.

Also in the Letsrun report are the actual details of the race. I wrote yesterday that Semenya would go on to break the world record if she is allowed to continue competing, and I believe that she could run 1:52 in the right race. Letsrun speak of that final 170m, when she blew the field away, and of how without these doubts, it would have stood out as a magnificent performance. It's a great analysis of the race.

South African perspective - a little less controversial

Finally, and not surprisingly, media back here in SA are portraying the success and downplaying the controversy much more. For SA, a first medal in 6 years, and a gold at that, means that Semenya's future success is very important indeed - we have been told that we will win "12 in 2012" by the SA Olympic Committee (bear in mind we won a single medal in Beijing), and so the stakes are quite high. A sure medal chance will not be overlooked at the best of times, never mind when a target like that has been set.

The radios and TVs have been dominated by ASA officials talking of how they were convinced of her gender before World Champs, which would only be possible if comprehensive testing was done. That remains to be established, but based on the comments by management, seems unlikely. Either that, or the test results were ignored because a medal was so highly coveted. Time will reveal all that.

The article has some quotes from Semenya, which, because of the IAAF preventing her from being at the press conference, are about the only words I've seen from her after the race.

Finally, there is also reference to booing from the crowd after the race. Of course, this is very sad, but equally understandable. As for the reaction of her rivals, the problem is that people don't know the answer, and their information suggests that she may be 'cheating' (whether knowingly or not). The situation, as many of you have said, has no winners, not Semenya, not the sport, not the fans who watch it, not the runners who compete with her.

Time will tell where this story goes - two to four weeks is the time it will take for IAAF results to be announced (apparently), and then maybe we'll revisit it (unless something comes up before then).

IAAF World Champs go on

For now, though, there is a World Championships to discuss, and so hopefully, we can get back on track (pardon the pun) and talk about the action, starting tonight, when Usain Bolt goes for number 2, we have the women's 400m hurdles final (a Jamaica-USA rematch), and the 110m hurdles final, where Dayron Robles looks to be struggling to win the expected gold.

Join us then!


Meg & Dave said...

If the issue has been around for so long and someone higher up cleared her to race, it makes NO sense that they would take her medal away. Its not like she set a new world record or did anything way out there. If someone is suspected of doping, they aren't allowed to compete. She is suspected to be a he, if they weren't convinced of her sex they should not have aloud her to race. Give her the medal she deserves and get this unfortunate story out of the headlines. Bring on the 200m final I say! Lets find out Bolt has been doping all along or something so we have something else to talk about.

V said...

Hi Ross, it seems like you're bearing the load on the site. I hardly ever see any contributions from Johnathan....is he just so busy, or something else?

I appreciate what you all do and I visit the site quite often. Keep up the good work.

blabla said...

Hi Ross, thanks for all the ACTUAL and CORRECT information, it is a pleasure reading your articles!! I am glad that someone is stating the facts in a professional manner! As 800m athlete and South African..I just wanted to thank you!

DrTim said...

It is all a really terrible situation and to try and bring a light hearted spin to it I have found without a doubt the best gender test is Family Guy ... I have never met a girl that likes it but every guy I have met does.

So Semenya ... Family Guy? Like or not like?

Unknown said...


Thanks for all your wonderful comments.

As an academic physician & sports enthusiast, I am trying to figure out why sex testing is so complicated.

Like any test, one must have clear criteria & then decide whether the person tested meets those criteria. One can have false positives or negative, if one has a better standard to compare it against. In this case the criteria for female vs male must be based on some genetic standard, some hormonal level & some anatomical features, or a composite based on these. Don’t the authorities already have these criteria & can’t we get access to them.

I can’t help feeling that this confusion is partly created by the fact that the official are themselves not clear as to what pre hoc standards they are going to use to determine the diagnosis of “female” & are keeping open the possibility of some post hoc analysis

Anonymous said...

Enjoy the site very much. As a grad student in Evol. Biol. with some interest in the evolution of sex chromosomes I was curious about the status of true hermaphrodites in sport, i.e. males but with XX cytology. This is probably outdated: XX True Hermaphroditism in Southern African Blacks:
An Enigma of Primary Sexual Differentiation AM J. Human Genetics 43:004-013, 1988

But this also raises a very interesting question of sex and gender from the biological perspective. Hypothetically, in any sport - if one were competing as a true hermaphrodite, does one compete as a man or woman? Just wondering if there are any cases where this have ever happened.

Chris said...

I feel bad for her, she can't help her condition and she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of.


it is the same saga story what happened in Doha asian games in 2006 when Santi Sunderajan 800 meters silvermedallist was asked to undergo gender test immediately after her participation and was humilated to an extent that even before the complete results, she was asked to leave DOHA and sent on the next flight home.
Till now nobody knows that whether Santi had Androgenic insestivity or what chromosomal defect or what is her sex.
women athletes can not be humilated like this.
i saw samaney in Commonwealth youth games held in Oct 2008 in pune where she got the gold in 800 meters.
Santi too had participated in five internationals before Doha just like Samaney created sensation toppling zola budd and then creating a new record at junior level.
IAAF can not order like this and cause embarrassment to a female atlete in front of the world.
Why genetic coding and harmonal assesment along with clinical test was not carried out 3 weeks before when they just talked and now humilating her in berlin.
samanry is the champion and like santi she too shall not return the medal

Anonymous said...

There are very good reasons why we keep men and woman categories apart. If she has the strength, speed, power of a man and male genetic caracteristics then Semenya should retrn the meda and from now on run agains men.
Lets see how she/he can do with the boys.
Rodolfo Madrigal, Costa Rica

Anonymous said...

Those who talk about opponent's behavior should distinguish between the behavior of Janeth Jepkosgei, who refuses to comment at this point, and that of Savinova and especially Piccione.
I can pretty much condone Jepkosgei's behavior and would condone asking quietly for a test.
She would likely accept the results if Caster were proven female.
However, I get the feeling that especially Piccione would not believe the test results even if they were to confirm Semenya to be female.
I worry that Caster will be too humiliated to compete again, even if proven female. The behavior of Piccione and Savinova might play a large part.

John Spinney said...

Hi guys-

This comment has nothing to do with the above post but I couldn't find any other place to ask. I was wondering if you could do a post discussing your thoughts on the recent beet root juice study. I posted a few links below. Great site by the way--love it!