The Tricky Case of Caster Semenya: How Sports and Science Classify Sex


Credit: Chell Hill

The Tricky Case of Caster Semenya: How Sports and Science Classify Sex

Two years ago, atِ the 2009 World Championships, South African runner Caster Semenya won theِ gold medal inِ the women’s 800-meter race.
Her celebration didn’tِ last long, however.
Citing Semenya’s meteoric rise inِ the world standings, theِ competition’s host, theِ International Association ofِ Athletics Federations (IAAF), hadِ tested herِ forِ performance-enhancing drugs inِ the weeks leading upِ toِ theِ championships.

The short answer: not even science clearly defines it.

According toِ Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor ofِ biology andِ gender atِ Brown University, thereِ areِ multiple layers toِ sex, including genital, chromosomal andِ hormonal.
While theِ layers forِ the majority ofِ the population align withِ theِ categories thatِ we considerِ male andِ female, 1 toِ 2 percent areِ not soِ easily described.
We don’tِ normally seeِ those multiple layers becauseِ they normallyِ haveِ givenِ sort ofِ the sameِ message toِ theِ body.

Name the layers

Usually, a male hasِ a penis andِ testes.
Chromosomally, heِ is XY, andِ hormonally heِ produces moreِ androgens, including testosterone.
Females, onِ the otherِ hand, typically haveِ a vagina, uterus andِ ovaries, haveِ XX chromosomes andِ produce moreِ estrogen.

Sex in sports

One reason whyِ theِ IAAF scrutinizes sex isِ becauseِ high levels ofِ androgens couldِ give female athletes anِ edge, forِ exampleِ byِ helping build stronger muscles orِ faster reaction times.
The IAAF doesn’tِ require a sex test (which theyِ call gender testing, a misnomer becauseِ gender andِ sex areِ not interchangeable terms).
Women withِ androgen-producing tumors, forِ example, areِ allowed toِ compete inِ women’s events despiteِ the fact thatِ they haveِ elevated levels ofِ the hormone.