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Semenya Will Keep Hardware

November 22, 2009

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Since the Track and Field World Championships ended in August, the world has been anxiously awaiting the IAAF’s (International Association of Athletics) decision on whether or not to strip Caster Semenya of her gold medal. For those who don’t remember Semenya, she is the 18-year old South African 800m runner who is under scrutiny for having an extremely muscular build and rapidly improving her times. Readers might also know her as the “hermaphrodite” runner. From a recent article in Sports Illustrated, a deal between Semenya’s lawyers and the IAAF was made allowing her to keep her gold medal and prize money from the World Championships.

I specifically put hermaphrodite in the paragraph above in quotes for a reason. The IAAF has not released ANY information regarding the results Semenya’s gender verification tests and probably will keep the results confidential. However, if Semenya is not seen in future races, it is obvious that results have classified her as a male for competition purposes. The hermaphrodite gossip originates from a September article in The Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper claiming

…she has three times the amount of testosterone that a “normal” female would have. According to a source closely involved with the IAAF testing, which included various scans, has revealed she has internal testes – the male sexual organs which produce testosterone.

The tabloids quickly picked this article up and went wild. Accusations of having no womb or ovaries exploded. The President of Athletics South Africa (ASA), Leonard Chuene, initially claimed he knew nothing of tests being done in South Africa. However, he finally admitted to knowing of tests conducted on Semenya at a hospital on August 7, 2009 and said his denials were an “error of judgment.” As a result of his lies, the ASA promptly suspended Chuene and the rest of his board. To make matters worse, her coach Michael Seme has been accused of taking part of the notorious East German doping scandal that rocked the athletic world during the 1970s and 1980s, putting Semenya further under scrutiny from the IAAF.

First and foremost, the discussion regarding the amount of testosterone Semenya may or may not have is extremely complicated. The definition of “normal levels” of testosterone is not cut and dry. Hormone levels vary throughout the day and also between individuals. The Science of Sport blog ran a fantastic piece showing the range of testosterone in men and women. The post revealed two things:

First, the ranges are wide. That means it’s even more important to know what you are comparing a value to. Quite clearly, people are not equal, and so to compress everyone into a narrow band is ‘unphysiological’.

Second, and maybe more important, the ranges don’t overlap. In fact, they’re not even close. The bottom end of the male spectrum is almost 400% higher than the top of the female range. And, importantly, males who lie in the bottom of that range are usually quite ill – they have hypogonadism requiring medical treatment, and the typical male value is much higher than this 9 nmol/L lower limit. The difference between males and females is thus enormous.

Similarly, women do NOT naturally have testosterone levels above the upper end of their range. In fact, my discussions with chemical pathologists and a few endocrinologists have revealed that if a female presents with a testosterone of 4 nmol/L, they are considered to have a pathology that requires treatment. Candidates for the conditions causing this level are Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), an androgen producing tumor, alpha-5-reductase deficiency, and a host of other DSDs (disorders of sexual development).

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Clearly, this case is extremely complicated. What I am waiting for is what the IAAF will do to address hermaphrodite athletes in the future. Due to this controversial matter, the IAAF cannot turn their back on the issue. They will have to implement rules and bylaws. What the rules and regulations would state, I am not sure. The IAAF could potentially model their regulations similar to those already in place regarding transgender (specifically male to female) athletes which make the athletes wait to compete until two years after the male genitalia are removed and hormone therapy is commenced. Aforementioned, I’m not sure what the next step is but am very curious to see what the IAAF will establish.

What saddens me is that Caster Semenya’s life has been flipped upside down. As an 18-year old student at the University of Pretoria, she has been hounded by the paparazzi since the case first started in August. For her entire life, she thought she was a perfectly normal female and now that is being questioned. I can only imagine how beaten down she must feel going through rounds of physiological and psychological testing. There are so many questions, but few, if any answers. In a sport divided into male and female competition, how do you define sex? Is it chromosomal, hormonal, physical, psychological, or something else entirely? Who should be gender-tested and when? Who should and should not be allowed to compete?

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