Testes, testosterone and terrible accusations

By in Sports & Health

Dorian Geiger
Sports Editor

South African female sprinter Caster Semenya’s career and recent gold medal in the 800-metre world championships at Berlin last month are in jeopardy due to allegations that the 18-year-old phenomenon is a man.

A far cry from steroid and drug use, biological components such as testosterone, testicles and ovaries (or lack thereof) are apparently also criteria for stripping athletes of medals and athletic achievements.

Semenya’s gender has been in question and accusations have flown since her dominating victory in Berlin, accompanied by high race times, masculine appearance and a noticeably deep voice.

Results now verify the sprinter has a gender-based medical condition and had three times the testosterone levels in her system than that of a typical female athlete. Many media sources are claiming Semenya is a “hermaphrodite,” but testing has only revealed that the sprinter has internal testes and no ovaries. This doesn’t prove the medical allegations but doesn’t rule them out either.

A hermaphrodite is someone with both ovarian and testicular tissue and such a gender disorder is extremely rare. Further investigation into the issue along with more official test results will likely find Semenya to have what is known as an inter-sex condition.

Inter-sex conditions refer to a variety of genetic and hormonal disorders and involves incomplete sexual development. One of the potential conditions Semenya might have is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Such a syndrome prevents testosterone from docking with cells, triggering abnormal responses.

In 1980, a similar gender-related case emerged concerning Polish sprinter Stella Walsh. After breaking dozens of world records and capturing two Olympic gold medals throughout the earlier part of the 20th century, Walsh was killed in an attempted robbery of a department store in Cleveland. Later, an autopsy revealed the female sprinter had male sex organs, both XX and XY chromosones and has since been referred to as a gender cheat.

Perhaps more nutty, in 1936 a German man named Hermann Ratjen disguised himself as a female by binding his genitals to his body and managed to compete in the high-jump competition at the Berlin Olympics as a female. “Dora” Ratjen was eventually found out after being spotted sporting blatant facial hair at a train station. So incredibly weird and wrong, I know. Ratjen later blamed the Nazi Regime for his shameful actions.

Meanwhile, South African politicians and Semenya’s family have publicly voiced their disgust for such a humiliating violation of privacy against the sprinter.

Lesiba Rammabi, Semenya’s uncle told the New Zealand Herald, “I believe Caster is normal, inside and out. What does it matter whether she can have babies? Many people cannot have children. Are those women not women also?

“We are a normal family who looked at a child when she was born, saw that she was a girl and raised her as any other family would do. Are we now being told that we are wrong?” said Rammabi.

Semenya, who defeated her competitors in Berlin by a commanding 2.45 seconds, is under scrutiny for something she cannot help or control. She is the very opposite of athletes who consciously choose to use anabolic steroids or illicit substances. In fact, she was completely unaware of her condition.

Semenya’s test results not only expose the fact that the South African will never be able to bear children due to her condition, a disconcerting enough revelation in itself, but stripping her medal will essentially put an immediate halt to her career as well — something utterly unjust, unfair and plainly laughable.

Moreover, if testing was to be performed on Semenya to determine any abnormal biological conditions, it should have happened before the world championships in Berlin, rather than later. Such a motion would have prevented the needless embarrassment Semenya has undergone and the present controversy at hand.

By not doing so, I believe the judging panel of the world championships is to blame and not Semenya. Given the context, stripping such achievements is unethical. Those medals are rightfully Semenya’s but salvaging her career might pose a more difficult problem.

Tragically, exhaustive media perpetuation of the subject might spell the inevitable demise of Semenya’s career like it has for other athletes who have been caught up in similar controversy.


photo José Goulão