Caster Semenya and Sex Testing

As track and field portion of the Olympic Games gets up to steam, all eyes turn to Caster Semenya, the South African middle distance runner who took the silver in the 800 meters at the 2012 Games. Semenya is considered a strong favorite in 2016, not just to win the gold, but to break the oldest existing record in athletics: Jarmila Kratochvílová’s 800 at the World Championships in 1983.

pieperSemenya’s out-of-nowhere victory at the 2009 World Championships began one of contemporary track’s most bitter controversies. This May 23 interview with medical physicist Joanna Harper, known for her work on gender and sports, delves deep into the Semenya case and many related topics. The recent UIP release Sex Testing by Lindsay Parks Pieper shows how the treatment of Semenya fits into the long history of gender policing/enforcement by the International Olympic Committee. Pieper writes:

Once again the official Olympic policy targeted “deviant” female athletes. This time the IOC targeted women with higher than average levels of androgens. Androgenic hormones control muscular development, and women with hyperandrogenism typically create a greater amount of naturally produced testosterone.

Richard Budgett, sports physician and the current IOC medical and scientific director, argued that the group believed that testosterone was the deciding factor between male and female athletes. “It’s the hormone that makes the difference,” he explained. “If the thing that actually makes the difference in anybody . . . men or women, is testosterone, then it makes sense to look at that.” Therefore, the IOC required all NOCs to “actively investigate any perceived deviations in sex characteristics.”

According to Stéphane Bermon, a coordinator of the working group on Hyperandrogenism and Sex Reassignment in Female Athletics, women with this condition have an “unfair advantage,” because it produces “more muscle mass, easier recovery and a higher level of blood cells.”18 Echoing these anxieties, the IAAF adopted a similar policy.

Fiasco ensued:

The IOC implemented the policy for the 2012 London Olympics and problems immediately surfaced. Four female athletes, ages twenty-one and younger, were identified as having hyperandrogenism. The appearance of one competitor’s genitals raised suspicions during an anti-doping urine screening. Hormonal changes noted on the Athlete Biological Passport raised suspicion of two athletes.

The Athlete Biological Passport, introduced by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2002, monitored biological variables over time to determine if an athlete had manipulated his or her physiology. The fourth woman was referred to the international federation by a national federation doctor.

After the IOC barred all four Olympic hopefuls, they were “whisked away” to Nice and Montpellier, France, for treatment. Those responsible for the medical intervention described the women as tall, slim, and muscular and noted that they hailed from “rural or mountainous regions of developing countries.” The doctors recommended that the athletes undergo a corrective measure to ensure their future participation in sport. As stated in the report, forgoing the surgery “carries no health risks,” while undergoing the surgery “would most likely decrease their performance.” Still, the procedure would “allow them to continue elite sport in the female category.”

The specialists also performed “feminizing vaginoplasty,” an aesthetic (re)construction of the vagina. Put simply, the doctors completed an unnecessary operation that did not alleviate a health issue and then executed plastic surgery to ensure that the women’s genitals aligned with accepted anatomical compositions.

An interesting side note. At the London Olympic Games, Semenya lost in the 800 meters to Russian runner Mariya Savinova. It is likely Savinova will not defend her title in Rio. She is waiting to hear if she will stripped of her medals and championships after the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended a lifetime ban for her. The controversy over the gender issue, meanwhile, will undoubtedly go on.