Female South African Athlete Asked to Prove Gender

Just how many experts does it take to assign someone a gender?

The female South African winner of the 800m race at track and field
world championships in Berlin has been asked to prove that she is a
woman, the Guardian reports.  And to prove herself female, she must submit to and pass a battery of tests:

Nick Davies, a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)…described the tests necessary to determine the gender of an
athlete as "an extremely complex procedure" involving medics,
scientists, gynaecologists and psychologists, the outcome of which is
not expected for several weeks.

Caster Semenya, 18, had never competed outside of Africa when she logged this year’s best time. Her youth and her relative lack of experience led officials to question her gender.

While Semenya herself has not commented on the investigation, her father, Jacob, said: “I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman, and I can repeat that a million times” (via the New York Times). 

The Times coverage of the story underscores how many different factors play into sex determination.  Genes, hormones and genitalia can align in ways other than strictly "male" or "female," the Times explains:

Complicated cases are common. For example, a disorder known as
congenital adrenal hyperplasia gives women excess testosterone from a
source other than the testes — the adrenal glands. In mild cases,
genitals may appear normal and often no one suspects the problem. Women
with the disorder are allowed to compete as females…

Then there is a list of rare genetic disorders that can
confuse sexual identity. Some genetic males, for example, have
mutations in a gene needed to form testes. Although they look like
women, genetically they are men, with an X chromosome and a Y


Will this story force us to examine just how constructed our definition of gender actually is?  Or will we keep telling ourselves it’s just one percent of the population that’s “abnormal”?

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  • mea

    Why does this runner need Psychological tests to prove her gender? It seems to me that this process could be a lot simpler. Just because she has not been racing publically doesn’t mean that she has not been running! I find this very invasive. If the gynecologist says she looks like a girl she is a girl!!!

  • nikolasr

    I looked at her pictures. She looked like a man. But points here are right. There are some that experiencing abnormalities in genes. Some females produce huge amount of unnecessary hormone that can be seen with their physical appearance. Caster is known for exceptional speed, muscle definition and an unusually deep voice for a woman. The universal gender testing has been abandoned by the IOC, and complete gender tests are far more complex than armed forces loans applications. Blood work, invasive probing, the works – it would be less invasive and painful to get auto financing than to conclusively prove Caster Semenya is a female, according to athletic organization standards.