Written by: Cathal Kelly
The Toronto Star
Fifty years ago, it was done with a peek under a dressing gown. Today, sex testing for athletes involves a panel of medical practitioners addressing a host of biological and psychological issues. "It's complicated, very complicated, because of the shades of grey at the centre," said Dr. Robert McCormack, chief medical officer of Canada's Olympic teams.
Those shades of grey include genetic, physiological and social differences than can make it difficult – even from a scientific viewpoint – to decide where to draw the line between a woman and a man.
Citing those concerns, the Canadian Association of Sports Medicine recommended generalized gender verification be scrapped more than 10 years ago. But the practice continues, albeit in a more specialized, rarely used form.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight this week by the case of 18-year-old South African runner Caster Semenya. The teen has a muscular build, wispy facial hair and a deep voice. More importantly, she has burst onto the world running scene. Even before she trotted to easy victory in the 800-metre event at the world track and field championships on Wednesday, an ugly whisper campaign had begun. That prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations to open an investigation into Semenya's sexual identity. It has left the IAAF baffled. "At this stage, it's confusing," IAAF secretary-general Pierre Weiss said following Semenya's gold medal performance. "Personally, I have no clue what's going on. I rely on and trust our doctors."
Photo: South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 800-metre in Berlin, Aug. 19, 2009. -AP
The suggestion that Semanya is biologically a man has prompted anger from her family.
"I raised her and I have never doubted her gender," Semenya's father, Jacob, said. "She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times." One of the runner's cousins said Semenya had been teased throughout school for her looks. Her headmaster said he had wrongly assumed she was a boy until Grade 11. While that humiliation plays out on a world stage, Semenya is keeping silent and continuing to undergo testing.
"While I feel terribly for this young girl, it's almost worse if this is just hanging out there as an accusation," said McCormack. As recently as 20 years ago, female athletes competing at large international events were expected to carry a gender verification card. However, the test widely used to obtain the card – a cheek swab – often produced false negatives. The practice came to be seen as unreliable and prejudicial. General testing was widely abandoned before the turn of the century. Read the entire story -