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Caster Semenya at the IAAF World Championships

 

Sunday 23rd Aug, 2009

Although this has nothing to do with golf, I continue to be mentioned in media reports in newspapers and TV, I felt it appropriate to express my views. As I have been invovled in small part with the work that Kristen Worley has been doing in Canada to achieve progress in sport to achieve greater understanding and education with exactly this kind thing, it is sad to see that some international sporting organisations still seem to be in the dark when it comes to the true nature of gender and sex and the extent of natural diversity that exists.

There has been a lot written in the media lately regarding a South African athlete called Caster Semenya competing at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin. The reason there has been so much media is not just because she won the 800m with a world record time, but because she seemed to be too masculine and that she was to undergo a 'sex test' to 'verify' her sex. This whole situation is a disgrace on numerous levels and not least of all because of the public humiliation and scrutiny that Caster is subject to at the hands of the worlds media.

Even though sex testing is an unnecessary violation of a persons privacy and shouldn't be conducted in the first place, this issue should have remained completely confidential and private until such time that results were obtained. And only then should the IAAF be making statments to the media, just as it would be when testing for performance enhancing drugs. The failure by IAAF to keep this confidential is the greatest issue at stake here. Caster has done nothing wrong until something is proved otherwise, which I very much doubt will actually be the case anyway.

When it comes to testing for doping, there are very strict confidentiallity practices set in place by WADA (World Anti Doping Authority) which, I believe, includes the requirement for people involved in testing to sign confidentiallity agreements. For some reason, at least for the IAAF, this doesn't seem to apply if a woman's sex is in question. It has been happening for decades in sport and it is sad to see that it's still happening today.

The last time the IAAF was involved in such controversy it was at the Asian Games in 2006 where an Indian runner called Santhi Soundarajan was accused of the same thing. She won a Silver medal in the 800m race and an official questioned her sex because she 'looked' too masculine. This official also took it upon himself to talk to the media about it and Santhi was subsequently scrutinised, humiliated, judged and convicted by the worlds media. And Santhi had no idea what was going on.

For the first time in her life, she learned that she had AIS (Androgen Senstivity Syndrome) which is one of the many intersexed conditions that some people are born with. Amongst other things, it means that she had a 'Y' chromosome which is generally only associated with males, hence the 'failed' sex test results. Santhi was stripped of her medal and sent home in shame and her athletics career was over. A short time later it was sad to read that Santhi had attempted suicide as a result of everything she had been through, which fortunately was unsuccessful. Although she no longer competes, she is reportedly coaching at an academy in India and is doing very well. To this day she is still reported as the athlete who 'failed' a sex test despite it being known that she is a female born with AIS. The truth of the matter is that the only people that 'failed' in 2006, was the IAAF.

Here is a description of AIS by CASM (Canadian Academy for Sports Medicine) from their Position Statement on 'Sex Testing (Gender Verification) in Sport' (January 1997):

a) Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (formerly called Testicular Feminization)
Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome occurs in females with 46, XY sex chromosomes whereby a mutant gene on the X chromosome results in an inability to produce normal androgen receptors. Cells are unable to respond to circulating testosterone secreted by small intra-abdominal testes. As a result, the individual's chromosomal, gonadal and hormonal sex are male, but the secondary sex characteristics as well as musculature, are female. Thus, these women have no advantage over normal 46, XX women in terms of muscle mass and strength. This is the most common abnormality detected by sex chromatin testing in sport. It is apparent that a discrepancy exists between the incidence of this condition in the general population (1 in 60,000 male births) and the estimated incidence in the population of women athletes competing at an international level (1 in 500). This suggests that some advantage may be conferred to affected women. As there may be varying degrees of androgen insensitivity, the potential for circulating male hormone levels to have some effect on various tissues of the body exists. These effects are very difficult to measure, however, with no satisfactory methods currently available.

(Note: variants such as Partial AIS and Complete AIS exist and AIS is but one of a long list of intersex variations)

At the end of all of this, despite everything that Santhi was subject to and the resulting and unnecessary impact on her life, nobody at IAAF was held accountable for their actions and nobody was reported to have been repremanded. It seems that organisations such as the IAAF, the IOC and WADA etc can pretty much do what they like when it comes to sport. They set their own rules and aren't accountable to anybody. In the case of people like Santhi, they can ruin a persons life and that's apparently just bad luck. ....that's not ok in my books and it has to change!

The practice of 'sex verification' has to stop, in favour of a more comprehensive understanding of the true nature of sex and gender and the diversity that exists.

I'm pleased to read that Caster Semenya seems to be taking all of this in her stride and is hopefully enjoying the glory of her well earned successes. She also has wonderful support from her home country, Athletics South Africa and the South African Government. Let's hope that Caster continues on to greater personal and athletic success.

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