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Jane Devin

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Genetic Freaks: Semenya & Yao. One Gets Humiliation, the Other Gets an NBA Contract. Why?

Posted: 08/24/09 02:28 PM ET

By now, many have heard of Caster Semenya. The 18 year-old South African runner first made the news for her stellar run in the African Junior Championships, but had her victory tainted by competitors who insisted that the IAFF, (the International Association of Athletics Federations), should test Semenya's gender to see if she is 100% female, not just physically, but biologically.

A recent article in Time explained:

. . . that female athletes who in the past have been suspected of being men may have suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), a condition in which a person who is genetically male -- that is, their 23rd chromosome pair is XY -- is resistant to androgens, the male sex hormones that include testosterone. As a result, the testes present in that person's abdomen never descend, and neither they nor their parents ever realize they are actually boys. Those with complete AIS will have a totally female body on the outside, but will lack ovaries and a uterus. Others may demonstrate partial AIS. . .It's those characteristics that Semenya's competitors see in the world champ, leading them to predict -- and hope -- that her forthcoming gender results will leave her ineligible to compete with women.

Rather than a mere physical exam, where genitalia is the determining factor, the IAFF is calling for an months-long process of gender testing, involving several specialists and exhaustive testing.

I find it disturbing that anyone, least of all an 18 year-old, would be subjected to forced gender testing in order to appease their competitors. It might be another matter if Semenya was a boy disguised as a girl in order to compete, but that's not the accusation. Semenya was born and raised as a girl, and those in the position to know -- her midwife, parents, and a former roommate -- attest that she does not have, and has never had, a penis.

Lacking proof of actual male genitalia, Semenya's competitors hope that the IAFF testing will reveal some other anomaly that will effectively kick Semenya out of the women's category. Among the specialists that will participate in Semenya's anticipated de-womanizing is a psychologist. I wonder what the outcome might be if Semenya's DNA comes back as XX, but her thought processes are considered more male. Would the IAFF consider this an unfair "advantage" in women's sports?

And what happens if Semenya isn't an XX or an XY, but an oddly tall and vigorous XO? Genetically, she would be a female, but one with a missing chromosome. Should anomalous genetic makeup disqualify Semenya from women's sports? If so, then shouldn't other genetic freaks like, say, NBA basketball star Ming Yao, also be disqualified since his 7'6" frame clearly gives him an advantage over his competitors? Should he and other overly tall basketball players be checked for mutations of the NSD-1 gene, which can cause gigantism? Is it fair to others to allow Yao to professionally compete?

If the IFAA determination is that DNA is more important than genitalia in separating men from women in sports, then why not test all effeminate males? That's a rhetorical question, because male athletes have not been subjected to gender testing as females regularly were up until 1999, when the International Olympic Committee passed a resolution to stop the practice.

Gender testing began when it was believed that males might disguise themselves as females in order to enter, and conceivably win, a women's event. However, this was not the accusation against Semenya. The IAFF has repeatedly stated that they do not believe Semenya was being deceptive about her gender. "It's a medical issue. It's not an issue of cheating," IAFF spokesperson Nick Davies said.

So at 18 years-old, Caster Semenya -- born a girl, raised as a girl -- will find out whether science agrees with the midwife who delivered her, the parents that raised her, and the children who taunted her for not being girl enough; for being a tomboy. This is probably not what she thought her victory would bring. Instead of being greeted with cheers and hailed as a hero, she has been met with questions, derision, and public humiliation. Instead of having the difference she was born with accepted, sought-after, and nurtured, like Ming Yao's was, Semenya's fellow athletes have sought to have her thrown out of the sport.

Clearly, I think the IFAA decision is wrong. If they do not believe Semenya "cheated" -- in other words, if they know, as they appear to, that she was born with and has female genitalia -- than they should not embark on a genetic fishing expedition simply to appease those who find Semenya's talent and ambiguous appearance unsettling.

This article was cross-posted at janedevin.com

 
 
 

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