18-year-old Caster Semenya of South Africa, won the Women’s 800 Meter in the World Championships by a long shot over other female contenders. Not only did she win, she set a world record of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds, beating current world champion, Janeth Jepkosgei, by 2.45 seconds. (USA Today)
Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images
Semenya’s win has stirred up controversy in the world of Track & Field. Her masculine features and deep voice combined with her otherworldly speed at the championships have started a gender debate, with athletes and coaches from several countries questioning her true biological gender.
This begs the question of whether it’s acceptable to single out one athlete to test her gender. Shouldn’t all athletes be tested prior to championships of this magnitude? Is it morally wrong to say that because an athlete looks and performs like a male, she should be gender-tested?
Mandatory gender testing of female athletes was instated in 1966. The International Association of Athletics Federations ceased gender screening for all athletes in 1992,but retains the option of assessing the gender of a participant should suspicions arise. They are currently invoking this rule in Semanya’s case.
Semenya’s coach is not worried about the test results. “We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It's a natural reaction and it's only human to be curious.” (Maholo)
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is under heat as well. They should have verified her gender quietly, before allowing her to compete. Now the entire world is abuzz with questions of gender identity, leaving Semenya in an unfavorable worldwide scrutiny.
This is not the first time the world has questioned the biological gender of a purported female athlete. Perhaps the most famous case of gender-bender suspicion in sports is that of sisters, Tamara and Irina Press in the 1960s. The sisters were Olympic and National Track & Field stars for the Soviet Union. Tamara won three track-and-field Olympic gold medals and set 12 world records while Irina won a gold medal in the 80-metre hurdles. They became the first sisters to win gold medals at the same Olympics (Rome, 1960). During their reign, however, they were universally called “The Press Brothers” due to their manly faces, figures, and masculine record-breaking skills. Curiously, they dropped out of public competition when gender-testing first became instituted in 1966.
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Tamara Press accepting her Gold Medal in the 1964 Olympic Games
In 1996, 8 Female Olympians (Atlanta Games) were found to have Y chromosomes, however 7 of them were okayed to compete due to being diganosed with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). People with AIS have a Y chromosome but develop all the physical characteristics of a woman except for internal female sex organs. The result is a genetic defect wherein the body does not produce testosterone. Since testosterone helps build muscle and strength, a person with AIS competing as a female athlete would have no competitive advantage over 'normal" females. (India Times)
More recently, Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan who won the silver medal in 800 m at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar failed the sex determination test and was stripped of her medal. Sadly, Soundarajan attempted suicide in 2007 amid the controversy over her gender. It is unknown whether she suffers from AIS, as the Olympic Council of Asia continues to practice mandatory gender testing. (India Times)
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