Unconfirmed Reports: South African Runner May Be Intersexed

By Eliza Strickland | September 11, 2009 3:10 pm

Semenya 2Trouble is mounting for the South African athlete who was suspected of having an unfair advantage in women’s track events because of male characteristics. After 18-year-old Caster Semenya thumped the competition at an 800-meter race in Berlin, sports officials announced that Semenya would be subjected to a battery of tests to determine her gender. Now, unconfirmed sources have reported that the tests showed Semenya has both female and male reproductive organs, and her future in women’s sports is in doubt.

Newspapers in Australia reported that while Semenya’s external genitalia is female, she doesn’t have ovaries and instead has internal testes that produce the hormone testosterone. If the reports are accurate, Semenya probably benefited from that hormone boost by gaining muscle mass. But it now seems clear that there is no disciplinary action to be taken, because even if Semenya has high male hormone levels, it is not because of medical cheating. But that leaves a moral and ethical quandary and a medical issue which anyone else in the same position would be able to work out in private – for Semenya, it is all public [ABC Sport].

Experts says that based on the information reported, Semenya may have a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome, in which the fetus develops functional testes, but then stops developing male characteristics. As a result, the baby develops down the “default” female route. The testes are there but usually do not descend and remain hidden in the body and the condition does not become apparent until adolescence when the girl does not start her period [BBC News]. Medical experts also note that internal testes can grow malignant tumors, and say that some doctors advise removing them as a precautionary measure. 

The International Association of Athletics Federations has refused to confirm or deny the reports that Semenya is intersexed (a broader and more respectful term than the outdated term “hermaphrodite”), and says an official ruling will be issued in November. The authorities are likely to rule in one of three ways, says BBC sports expert Gordon Farquhar: “that the condition does not give her a competitive advantage; the condition gives her a competitive advantage, which cannot be treated; or most likely, the condition can be treated in some way if she consents to it, and in time she can return to competition” [BBC News]. Meanwhile, Semenya has withdrawn from a race scheduled for this weekend in South Africa.

The athlete has the complete support of her country, however. South African officials have warned of a “third world war” if the row over her sex stops her competing…. South Africa’s sports minister, the Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile, said: “Caster is a woman, she remains our heroine. We must protect her” [BBC News].

Nick Davies, a spokesman for the IAAF, says that Semenya will probably keep the gold medal she won in Berlin  because the case was not related to a doping matter. “Our legal advice is that, if she proves to have an advantage because of the male hormones, then it will be extremely difficult to strip the medal off her, since she has not cheated…. She was naturally made that way” [AP]. But whether Semenya will ever return to the track is still uncertain.

Related Content:
80beats: Debate Over South African Runner Spotlights Confusing Nature of Gender
80beats: Big League Baseball Prospects Face Another Hurdle: the DNA Test
80beats: Doping Police Try Out “Biological Passports” for Athletes
DISCOVER: Will Genetic Therapy Destroy Sports? explores the potential for genetic doping

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine
  • http://www.ellipticalexercisebike.com/ Cliq

    All athletes, male and female, should have hormones inside normal medically accepted ranges for their gender and body type

  • trans fan

    If you have to sit when you pee, then you should be able to run with the ladies. Poor kid isn’t a man, isn’t accused of doping, and can run her ass off. The only option open to her is to have hormone therapy…What a joke.

    What about Venus Williams? She is more manish than my florist Uncle Bobby. What about effeminate males in gymnastics? Less testosterone makes them more flexible than their muscular counterparts. What about Womens shotput, discuss, and javelin? Big tough women all.

  • Kate

    There is nothing masculine about Venus Williams. You look at her photo and her face, chest, waist to hip to thigh proportions all shout “female”. Granted she’s a bit more developed than Paris Hilton, and a bit more streamline than that blonde one from Baywatch, but Venus plays professional sport on the world stage and Paris … wait, what does Paris do?

    There is nothing feminine about Caster Semenya’s photos apart from the fact you can’t see a budgie package adjoined to her pelvis.

    There is no comparison.

    So what if your florist is more femine than Venus? I see three possible reasons for this: he was born with more feminine characterists; he prefers to act more feminine; or he needs to exercise to try and get rid of those man-boobs. That’s assuming your florist isn’t intersexed himself, but then again that counts under “born” that way, doesn’t it… Whatever the reason – I fail to see why your florist being feminine is reason to disrespect the obvious femininity of the great wonder that is Venus.

  • okaasan59

    I think it depends on the level of testosterone that her body produces. It certainly appears that there has been enough hormone to not only give her obvious male characteristics but also a probable advantage in the race.

    If the level of hormone found is enough to haven given her an advantage then she should not be allowed to compete with women, though prior wins should stand since it was not her fault. But to have her continue to compete alongside other women would negate the whole reason for there being separate competitions for men and women.

  • trans fan

    If Venus Williams comes at you naked, you’d better do what she says. She is like a Bear: she can outrun you, outclimb you and outswim you.
    I don’t know if she eats whole Salmon raw with her hands, but I can imagine it.

  • Kate

    @ okaasan59 – I completely agree, and apologise beforehand if what I’m about to respond to transfan with in any way offends you.

    @ transfan – …. and so Venus coming at me naked is a problem, why, exactly?

    If she likes to eat raw salmon and likes to use her hands imagine how happy I’d be at that point. ^^

    Mmmmmm … now I’m day dreaming about her backhand …. {mimicking some tennis players ‘oofs’}

    roflmao 8P

  • Lupo

    I didn’t say it was bad, I said I wouldn’t disobey, just take a look at the size of her fist!

  • scribbler

    If you strip away the question of gender and look at it from an “unfair advantage” aspect, I think the issue is much clearer. Does this person have an unfair advantage because of a raised hormone level in the blood?

    If the answer is yes, then the solution is to prevent further exploitation of this unfair advantage.

    Of course you should not penalize anyone for not knowing they had an unfair advantage to begin with…

  • Marie

    We don’t live in a Ken and Barbie world. There is much biological and physiological diversity with sex and gender. Trans fan makes a point. There are plenty of people who have physical advantages from birth other than intersexed related. Should we not allow them to compete as well? The answer is no. The only answer is to allow people with these medical conditions to decide for themselves with the help of their medical professionals and loved ones. Ever heard of brain sex? Did anyone test her psychological gender? There are so many variables (chromosomes, genitilia, secondary sex characteristics, hormonal sex, brain configuration, intersexed and transsexual medical conditions. Mother Nature and/or God didn’t make just two exact prototypes. We all have a mix of characteristics.

    What about Martina Navratilova, Renee Richards, etc. for example?

  • Frank

    Its too bad that we have to apply a litmus test subjective to todays perceptions of sex and gender. Criteria that are used now are sure to change tomorrow. The blameless South African teenager deserves better than to be a sideshow footnote.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ scribbler — but how do you quantify an unfair advantage? If a runner has a genetic condition that makes her unusually tall, and therefore gives her a longer stride — is that unfair?

  • RJ

    If she has androgen insensitivity syndrome then any testosterone she produces cannot give her a competitive advantage since she has no receptors to transduce the signal.

  • trans fan

    Wow Kate! Dirty girl and smart too.. I don’t know why you’d want to end your sushi date with a Williams sister’s backhand though, especially after the episode the other night. Maybe its the hormones that made her tell the line judge she was going to kill her.

    But hey, bears eat a lot of honey too.

  • qbsmd

    One question I’ve had that no report I’ve seen has addressed is, since men are apparently agreed to have an advantage over women in running, are women allowed to run in men’s events if they choose to?

    “Eliza Strickland Says:
    @ scribbler — but how do you quantify an unfair advantage? If a runner has a genetic condition that makes her unusually tall, and therefore gives her a longer stride — is that unfair?”

    Given that, what is the justification for having separate men’s and women’s events?

    This issue seems to be fairly circular: women have separate running events because men have a competitive advantage, and the way it’s decided who can compete in women’s events is based on that same competitive advantage.

  • Alyseal

    I feel for the girl. I completely disagree that your hormone levels must fall within a “normal” range, however. If you are female and your body naturally kicks out high doses of hormones that give you a competitive edge, then tough cookies for the other athletes. The problem here is, how do we define gender? Is it by the look of your bits? (in which case she is a female,) or by whether or not you have ovaries as opposed to testes. If the latter is the case, technically Semenya is not a female. In the past, before we had the ability to test, she would have been considered a female, period. Our technology is making us aware that gender is not always as clear cut a line as we had assumed in the past. And now that we know that, we have to redefine what it is to be female or male. Is it going to be the presence or absence of the Y chromosome? Or is it going to be the presence or absence of ovaries or testes? Or are we going make that determination by the presence or absence of specific genitalia? All of that aside, I feel for the athlete herself. Whether or not we end up calling her a male, she has been raised to believe she is female, and every outside appearance would have confirmed that belief. Not only is her career at risk, so is her self image. I wish her nothing but the best.

  • Dea

    Everybody heard and saw Caster before she ran, why was her testosterone levels only tested after she’d won? to be fair, she should have been tested before competing, rumours abound that being in love can cause excess testosterone to be produced, why not stop that practise as well? If African culture is understood, please try to acknowledge what damage these rumours are doing to this young woman’s life, her situation is not by choice and it is not only about a medal.

  • Hillary Kleiner

    I too, feel for the girl esp if she has undescended testicles.It is good then that she ran into this problem because they tend to turn malignant. All of that aside what bothers me the most is that the media went completely nuts with this. How would you like to live the rest of your life with the knowledge that people have indeed questioned your sexuality!!!

  • http://discovermagazine Sal1970

    if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. semenya looks and sounds like a man regardless of what’s between her legs. she should be
    barred from competing against the women.

  • Rain

    God have no fiery! The person was created as she is by nature. Some of you people are saying that she should be penalized (no pun intended) because of how she was created. The last time I checked that if you have a vagina you are female. She did not have a sex change , she was just born. We are always quick to destroy any thing that is foriegn to us. This woman has to stop performing in something that she loves because of a bunch of idiotic
    comments and fears from folks who want to question God. Leave her alone and her let her compete.

  • melanthios

    This is puts into perspective that there are NOT two genders, there are many more, and that segregation by gender is inherently flawed and unfair to the many genders that exist outside ‘male’ and ‘female’.

    I’m horrified that they’re treating something like eir gender this way, like something that MUST be changed. What if ey doesn’t want to change it to male or female? Intersexed is not a waiting room gender, it is a full and completely VALID gender of its own!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar